Comment: History of change in Olympic athletes’ protests

The defections by Hungarian athletes in 1956 forced change by the regieme. Biles’ actions could do the same.

By Johanna Mellis / Special To The Washington Post

The number of athletes advocating for themselves is seemingly at an all-time high with no hint of slowing down.

Citing the need to attend to their mental and/or physical health, Naomi Osaka, Becca Meyers and most recently Simone Biles chose to remove themselves from all or part of a competition. Many fans are cheering them on for prioritizing their needs in a capitalist sport environment that constantly extracts their labor for the entertainment of others, while profiting handsomely from them.

But they are not the first athletes to step away from the arena to protest intolerable conditions. In 1956, during the Cold War, an astonishing one-quarter of the Hungarian Olympic team and more than 300 total athletes defected en masse to the West following the Hungarian Revolution and that year’s Melbourne Olympic Games. By “voting with their feet” against the Hungarian socialist state, the athlete-defectors removed their labor from the service of the state. The defections — unparalleled in modern Olympic history — prompted unforeseen changes in the sport policies of socialist Hungary. Today’s athletes standing up for their health could create a similar reckoning as they move to safeguard their own needs.

Hungary was one of the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when it formed in 1894. Like most nations, Hungary sought to demonstrate its prowess as a sporting nation as well as its “belonging” to the IOC’s idea of “global peace through apolitical sport.” The Hungarian sport community grew into a global sports powerhouse by the 1930s and much of it survived World War I, World War II and the Holocaust. When the Hungarian Communist Party took control in 1948, the state nationalized sport clubs and put top party leaders in charge of various sports organizations and clubs.

For the next eight years, Hungarian Communists ruled their country through widespread oppression. Citizens feared visits from the secret police at night and struggled through show trials and shortages of consumer goods.

The state ruled its athletes in a similarly heavy-handed manner. This was clear from the case of soccer player Sándor Szűcs. In 1951, the Interior Ministry had him killed for trying to defect to the West, in pursuit of professional success as well as a love affair. His death was intended to send a message to any teammates thinking of defecting.

Simultaneously though, Olympic-level athletes had significant privileges. Hungary’s best athletes received full health care, worked at fake paper jobs in return for training and competing full-time, received lump sums for Olympic medals and could jump the notoriously long waiting lines for things such as consumer goods and the ability to buy an apartment.

Athletes produced incredible results partly because of this state support: the Hungarian Olympic team won the third-most medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and the fourth-most medals at the 1948 London Olympics and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The results alone, however, masked the athletes’ physical and mental struggles under communism.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was the only bloody revolt against the state in the Eastern Bloc throughout the Cold War. What began as a protest of university students turned into massive fighting in the streets, accompanied by barricades and state tanks. The revolutionaries won a short victory from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4.

Then, however, Soviet tanks rolled back into the country and crushed the revolutionaries. The recovering socialist state arrested 28,000 people and executed 600 Hungarians between late 1956 and 1961. Between late 1956 and early 1957, more than 200,000 Hungarians fled the country. While still in Budapest, the Olympic team released a bold public statement: “We promise that at the Olympic Games we will be fighting in the sacred spirit of the martyrs of the national revolution and for the glory of the Hungarian nation.”

Fortunately for the Hungarian Olympians, the 1956 Summer Olympic Games were in Melbourne. That meant they started one month after the Revolution, during the Australian summer. In late October, Hungarian-American emigres started working with people from Time Inc., Sports Illustrated and the CIA to facilitate an opportunity for Hungarian Olympic athletes to defect to the United States in what became called Operation Griffin. The goal was to use the athletes as symbols of freedom for propaganda purposes, while also using their prowess to boost Americans’ Olympic performances.

Operation Griffin was successful: In total, 34 Hungarian Olympic athletes and coaches and four Romanian athletes of Hungarian descent defected to the United States from Melbourne. Hundreds of additional Hungarian athletes slipped over the border to Austria or Yugoslavia to head to Western Europe, too.

The Hungarian Olympic team members thinking about defecting found a sympathetic ear in the top state sport official, Gyula Hegyi. Rather than force athletes to return home, Hegyi toasted to the would-be defectors’ health with pálinka, seemingly in the hope that leaving on good terms would keep the door open to defectors returning to Hungary.

Hegyi’s approach seemed to signal a shift in state policy toward athletes. Fearing that more competitors would defect — more than 300 athletes ended up leaving — and desiring athletes’ help in supporting the socialist state’s legitimacy, the government needed their willing labor.

This shift was halting and far from uniform. Nonetheless, the state and sport leadership greatly lessened their repression toward athletes they believed behaved badly. From the late 1950s until the end of the Cold War, Communist sports officials like Hegyi aimed to persuade, and not coerce, athletes to stay in Hungary. These officials began offering more privileges — such as the ability to open a small business — to athletes, and to a wider range of athletes. Owing to this improved treatment, very few athletes defected to the West for the rest of the Cold War.

This climate also improved their ability to lure back almost a fifth of the defectors, many of whom were bristling at the exploitative capitalist sport system in the United States. At the time, American athletes suffered from amateurism rules specifying that those wishing to compete at the Olympics couldn’t be paid for their athletic endeavors. This was in accordance with IOC rules, but the Eastern Bloc paid their athletes and simply lied about violations, while the Americans enforced them.

American athletes therefore often lived in poverty if they wanted to compete after graduating from college and lacked family wealth. Working full-time left them mentally and physically stressed, as they struggled to train at the elite level they needed to compete internationally. Defector László Tábori, the third man in the world to run a sub-four-minute mile, for example, lived in a three-bedroom house with 12 teammates because of their inability to earn money from their athletic prowess.

By removing their labor from the service of the socialist state, Hungarian athletes sparked major changes in domestic sport policy that greatly benefited current and future Hungarian athletes under socialism.

Today, athletes’ actions are calling attention to the myriad pressures placed upon them and the prioritization of profits over athletes’ health by governing bodies. From Rule 50 to greater pay to protection from abusive coaching, their actions could change the game for elite sport.

Such activism comes at a huge cost. For Hungarian defectors, it meant leaving their families and much more. For Osaka, Meyers and Biles, it means missing parts or all of major competitions in the prime of their careers. Nonetheless, the IOC’s exploitative system pays athletes only 4.1 percent of the total Olympic revenue and places little priority on their well-being. And the governing body has been loath to change even during the coronavirus pandemic.

That has left athletes with no choice but to follow the lead of the Hungarians and remove their labor from exploitative conditions in the hope of fueling change in sports.

Johanna Mellis is an assistant professor at Ursinus College, and a co-host of the “End of Sport” podcast.

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