A pair of Hungarian water polo legends died this week, just one day apart. Tibor Benedek, 47, died on Thursday, a day after Gyorgy Karpati, who was 84. The pair represent different generations and two crucial links in the tree of the legendary Hungarian water polo program.
Karpati won 4 Olympic medals, including 3 golds, on the Hungarian team between 1952 and 1964. He scored at least 19 goals at the Olympic Games in his career and recorded 162 career caps for Hungary before retiring from the National Team in 1969.
Karpati was the last surviving member of the Hungarian team that beat the Soviet Union in 1956. That match held heated political implications, as it came just weeks after the Hungarian Uprising that saw the country’s citizens revolt against Soviet-imposed policies in the country, halting the spread of the USSR through Eastern Europe. That revolution resulted in over 3,000 deaths in Hungary.
That culminated at the Olympic Games as the famous “Blood in the Water” match. The game was a violent affair throughout, with the coup de grace coming in the final minute of the match. With the Hungarians leading 4-0, Soviet player Valentin Prokopov punched Hungarian Ervin Zador above his eye, causing blood to gush in the pool. Photographs of Zador bleeding were circulated around the world, cementing the game’s infamy globally. Referees stopped the amtch and declared Hungary the 4-0 winners, advancing them to the finals where they would beat Yugoslvaia 2-1.
Zador would famously go on to coach American swimmer Mark Spitz.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, Karpati said that he and his Hungarian teammates considered the Soviet players to be symbols of an oppressive regime.
“In the strained political situation we were in, it was a body-to-body encounter with our opponents,” Karpati said. “Now I have to admit that I’m convinced the referee was pulling for us. We were from a small country battling the huge Soviet Goliath.”
Karpati began his aquatics career as a four-time national swimming champion and at 17 at the 1952 Helsinki Games became the youngest-ever water polo Olympic champion. He was also a 5-time Hungarian champion in water polo. In 1964, in the midst of his playing career, he earned a law degree, and went on to become a water polo coach. He was on the staff of the Hungarian team that won gold at the 1976 Games in Montreal.
47-year old Tibor Benedek was also a three-time Olympic gold medalist for Hungary, winning medals at the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympic Games. His 65 goals rank him 2nd on the all-time Olympic scoring list, including co-leading scoring at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with 22 goals, and leading the 1996 Olympics with 19 golds. He became the 9th player to compete at the Olympics in water polo 5 times, and one of 10 men who have earned 3 Olympic gold medals in water polo. He is an inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
He had 384 appearances for the Hungarian team from 1990 through 2008, and continued playing club with Italian side Pro Recco, the world’s most successful water polo club, until 2012. In total, he was a 4-time Hungarian Water Polo Player of the Year.
After retiring from his playing career, he went on to be the Hungarian head coach, leading the team to a gold medal at the 2013 World Championships.
Benedek died on Thursday as a result of pancreatic cancer.