Prof Remembers '56 Olympics

July 26, 2004

Geoffrey Shannon and J. Brian Carberry
Phone: (504) 865-5714

The 2004 Summer Olympics are approaching, surrounded by the fog of war and the angst of terrorism.

olympicsIn May, only 100 days before the Aug. 13 opening ceremony, three bomb blasts rocked the host city of Athens, intensifying concerns that the Summer Games will be a target for terrorist attacks.

For Eugene Hamori, recently retired professor of biochemistry and former Olympic fencer, the tension is all too familiar.

The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, also were played against a turbulent international scene that was most violently marked by an invasion of Hamori's native Hungary by the Soviet Union.

Consequently, Hamori and his teammates would be torn between defecting to the West for a brighter future, or returning to the grim realities of war back home.

Coming into the 1956 Melbourne Games, no nation had dominated a team event like the Hungarian sabre fencing team. The group won Olympic gold seven times between 1908 and 1952.

Hamori, one of the team's newer members, had already earned a distinguished reputation since learning the sport in high school. In 1948, he won the Hungarian junior national championships in sabre.

While at the University of Budapest, where he studied chemistry, Hamori made the Olympic practice squad and later was named to the Olympic team. As the team prepared to defend the Olympic gold in Australia, however, trouble was brewing in Hungary.

In late October, only a month before the Nov. 22 opening of the games (and the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere), the Hungarian citizenry revolted against the Soviet regime, demanding an independent republic and the reinstatement of moderate Premier Imre Nagy. Soviet soldiers were summoned, but with the help of sympathetic local police officers, the protesters successfully fought back.

Nagy was reinstated a day later, and set out to free Hungary of Soviet influence. He established a coalition government, withdrew from the Warsaw Pact with Russia and demanded the removal of Soviet troops. The situation calmed for a few days when Russian troops retreated to the Hungarian border. However, the move was a ruse. The invading divisions were reinforced with fresh troops from the USSR and, on Nov. 4, Soviet tanks once again rolled into Hungary.

This time, the protesters were soundly crushed with 20,000 people losing their lives. Nagy and other officials were arrested and eventually executed. While 200,000 Hungarians attempted to flee to the West, Hamori and the Hungarian Olympic team made arrangements to leave for Melbourne as soon as possible.

"When we started from Hungary it had already become a shooting revolution. Before I left from Budapest, I walked around with a camera and took pictures of Russian tanks, broken windows," Hamori says. "There was a basket in a broken store window with a sign that asked people to donate money for the wounded and dying. There was a lot of money thrown in and no one was taking it."

The team, tired and beaten after a quick exit from Hungary, received a rousing response from the international community. "The whole world press was very sympathetic," recalls Hamori. "Even though we were occupied by the Soviets we were still able to send a team."

Hungary again dominated in the sabre team event, winning the team gold medal with a 3-0 team record, besting Poland and the Soviet Union. For the Hungarian team, however, the thrill of victory was tempered by concerns that the situation back home was not improving. The possibility of defecting became increasingly likely, says Hamori. Then, an opportunity emerged.

Time Life Corp., one of the United States' most powerful publishing companies, had just added Sports Illustrated to its roster. The magazine offered to sponsor a six-week U.S. exhibition tour featuring the Hungarian Olympians. About 30 members of the Hungarian team took the offer, staying in the abandoned Olympic Village for three weeks until a charter plane could bring them to the United States.
Touring the country, the team raised money for the refugees of the revolt. During those few weeks, says Hamori, most of his teammates made arrangements to stay in the United States. The Rohm and Haas Corp., a plastics manufacturer in Philadelphia, hired Hamori. While in Philadelphia he sent for his fiancee, who escaped from Hungary through Europe. He then continued his education at Cornell University and earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in 1964.

Hamori continued fencing, winning two national championships in the '60s, and representing the United States at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. After a teaching stint at the University of Delaware, Hamori accepted a position with Tulane in 1972. Hamori, who retired from teaching this spring, has had a distinguished career at Tulane.

Among his significant contributions while at the university was the development of a computer program called HYLAS, which created a graphic representation of DNA sequences. More recently he became active in the development of new approaches to the successful teaching of thermodynamics and physical chemistry to bioscientists.

While at Tulane, Hamori also has worked with both the Tulane Fencing Club and the New Orleans Fencing Academy. He was recently elected into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame. "I owe a lot to fencing. It doesn't owe anything to me," he says.

Geoffrey Shannon is a 2004 graduate of Tulane College and former sports editor of the Hullabaloo. J. Brian Carberry is a 2004 graduate of the A. B. Freeman School of Business.

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