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 in Australia. 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 Sandor Szucs. 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.