Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
The Melbourne Olympic Games, 1956. Australia is finally on the map. These will be, they suggested, the “friendly” games. The portents were not great. In the month before the games opened, Russia invaded Hungary and soon after, Egypt was invaded by Israel, Britain and France. Other countries protested by boycotting the event and the Hungarians almost failed to arrive.
To many Aussies, the quintessential images of the games were Ron Clarke igniting the cauldron and Betty Cuthbert sprinting to gold. But to the world, the image that symbolised the times was of a Hungarian Polo player with a bloodied face, after a spiteful game against the Soviet Union. The “Blood in the Water” match still makes news to this day. According to a recent BBC story, it was “a match which came to symbolise the Hungarian struggle against Soviet rule.”
Harry Blutstein’s choice of topic was inspired. Cold War Games covers so many riveting themes that limiting it to 300 pages must have taken a monumental effort of editing will. Working through a wealth of source material, he has managed to create a narrative that weaves global political conflict with soccer matches. A bit of sporting knowledge might help, but this book is not just for sports aficionados. Anyone with an interest in misogyny, propaganda, fear, heroics, love, communism, migration or triumph against the odds, should find something on every page.
This book is not an almanac of the games. Tantalising snippets are dropped in about medal numbers and successes, as well as some lengthy descriptions of some of the keystone events. Harry Blutstein has so much more to offer us that the sport is necessarily a minor, though still important, part.
Of course, the “games” of the title is not just the Olympic events. Contests occurred behind the scenes in Melbourne and in many other parts of the world – particularly the Soviet Union, Hungary and the USA. The use of espionage, subterfuge and propaganda (a.k.a. false news), are at once intriguing and disturbing. Readers of all ages will have no difficulty recognising the modern parallels.
The standout portrayals are the personal dramas. The well-researched treatment of the extraordinary love affair between an American hammer thrower and a Russian discus thrower defies every pressure to desist. Equally compelling is the account of a Ukranian stewardess who disappeared from a somewhat sinister Soviet vessel berthed at Port Melbourne. In the days and weeks following, she was spirited from one local Ukranian family to another, eluding the searches of the Australian and Russian authorities.
Many of the stories demonstrate that people are less predictable than we think. The Americans worked hard at encouraging defections, presuming that no rational person could resist living in the USA. Despite an unofficial campaign to attract defectors and a long “Freedom Tour” through America after the games, many chose not to stay.
A brief disclaimer from this reviewer. Uncle Norrie represented Australia as a shooter in the Melbourne Games. Imagine being in an event where Russians, Hungarians and Americans were in close proximity and wielding high powered rifles. Thankfully, he managed to avoid cold war cross-fire. By the way, the Russians won gold and silver and the Hungarian and American shooters were well off the pace. I am grateful to Cold War Games for revealing so much of the zeitgeist.
Who better to write such a book than a journalist with an academic connection. Harry Blutstein has been a freelance journalist since 1972. He is an adjunct professor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the RMIT University and this is his third book.
Pulling this together took a special talent – not least of which in procuring original sources in Hungarian and Russian – expert help which the author graciously acknowledges.
As a chronicle of a formative period in history, Cold War Games is a gem. Harry Blutstein has handpicked material from across the globe and provided a searing contrast between the goodness of people and the inhumanity of governments. This is an emotional roller coaster with many unhappy endings, but crafted with an underlying reverence for the human spirit.