A journey of 13,500 km for nothing

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The Olympic Stadium of Mexico, in 1968. EFE / Archivo

The members of the Australian water polo team qualified to compete in the 1968 Olympic Games undertook a journey of 13,500 km for nothing.

When they arrived in Mexico, after a long flight over the Pacific Ocean, they were not allowed to compete. Fifty years later, the reasons for this prohibition remain unclear.

After a self-financing campaign that allowed them to raise 12,000 Australian dollars (about 8,900 US dollars at the current exchange rate), each player added 500 (370) from his own pocket, the effort was wasteful and the Australian team left Mexico without playing a single game.

According to ‘Water Warriors: A Chronicle of Australian Waterpolo’, a book published in 2008 by Tracy Rockwell, the Australian Swimming Union and the Australian Olympic Committee maintained a “technical conflict” of an administrative nature. The committee vetoed the team’s participation in the Games.

The International Swimming Federation (FINA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were involved in the controversy. The ‘Olympic family’ adopted a common position and the IOC seconded its partner: the American Avery Brundage, president of the body, ratified the exclusion of the Australian team.

Journalistic chronicles of those years allude to a conflict over which country, Australia or New Zealand, should represent in the South Pacific Games.

The players almost ignored the ban and paid for the trip to Mexico, without the gesture and their desire to compete soften the hearts of the Olympic leaders.

The Olympic historian David Wallechinsky does not refer in ‘The Complete Book of the Games’ to the administrative problems pointed out by Rockwell and argues that the Australian federation considered that the expense of sending the team to Mexico was not justified.

The tournament was played without oceanic representation among the 16 combined participants and was won by Yugoslavia, who beat the Soviet Union 13-11 in the final.

In that Australian team that was but did not compete in Mexico’68, 50 years ago, there were two men who are water polo history: Captain Tom Hoad and coach Oscar Charles.

Hoad, nicknamed ‘the left-handed lightning’, played the Games of 1960, 1964 and 1972 and captained ‘the sharks’ for eight years. Then coach and director, he is a member of the FINA Hall of Fame. In Perth an annual tournament with his name was played between 2003 and 2012.

As for Oscar Charles, he was actually the former Hungarian player Oszkar Csuvik. He had won silver at the London Games in 1948, but the Soviet invasion of Hungary led him to stay in England and two years later to settle in Australia. There the name was changed to flee from a possible persecution of the authorities of his country.

Before all that, and thanks to his swimming skills, Csuvik had been an active member of the resistance against the Nazis: he launched himself into the Danube as he passed through Budapest to rescue the corpses and the wounded bodies of the reprisals. He also took care of carrying documents clandestinely from one bank to another in the city.

In 1952 he went to other Olympic Games, those of Helsinki, this time as Australian coach. In 1968 he could not repeat that role for reasons unclear but, in any case, extra-sports.

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