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Interview: Harry Blutstein, author of ‘Cold War Games’

August 18, 2017

Harry Blutstein is the author of ‘Cold War Games’, a thrilling and insightful book filled with stories about the people behind the games – revealing secret operations in Melbourne and showing just how pivotal the 1956 Olympic Games were for the super powers of the Cold War. We loved the book. You can read our review of it by clicking here. 

Harry 2015-min (1)Better Reading: Congratulations on the publication of Cold War Games, could you tell us what it’s about?

Harry Blutstein: While outwardly the 1956 Olympics gave every appearance being the ‘friendly’ Games, behind the scenes they were anything but friendly, as the USSR and US played out their Cold War rivalry on the playing fields and swimming pools of Melbourne. Sometimes they were subtle, such as seeking to extract propaganda from wins, and sometimes they were violent, such as the bloody confrontation between Hungary and the USSR in the water polo semi-final.

BR: What attracted you to this period of Australian (and international) history?

HB: I was born in 1951, so that decade was a formative period for me. I had always thought that not much had happened during the 1950s, and so I was pleased to discover, through my research, that Melbourne was not a dull and boring place, and that during the Olympic Games it had become a battlefront in the Cold War.

BR: Do you have a particular favourite story or anecdote from the Melbourne Olympic Games?

HB: One of the most exciting discoveries for me was coming on a cache of coded telegrams between New York and Melbourne. One telegram was from Coach Turnbull to Charles Johnson from the Merion Cricket Club discussing problems recruiting players for an exhibition match of Aussie Rules football in the US. “Aussie footballers reportedly closely watched by fans and followers and it is not easy to talk to them at the moment.” Thankfully there was a key to decipher the code. The telegrams related to a secret operation run by President Eisenhower’s former Cold War advisor, CD Jackson (codename: Charles Johnson), to encourage Hungarian athletes to defect and participate in a propaganda tour of the US. It would provide ordinary Americans with a reminder of how the Soviet Union had brutally crushed the Hungarian Revolution, which occurred a little over two weeks before the Olympic Games. The reference to “fans and followers” was to the Hungarian secret police embedded in the team and the KGB. In the end, around 35 athletes joined the American Freedom Tour, which ran for six weeks at the start of 1956, and is described in the book.

BR: As a writer, how did you manage the task of presenting history accurately while also writing a compelling – and often dramatic – narrative?

HB: I was keen to populate each chapter with individuals who personified the themes of the book. I wanted readers to understand their experiences, feelings and the tribulations they faced. Combining their stories with events, and being careful not to weigh the writing down with unnecessary minutiae, I was able to build the momentum and dramatic arcs to keep readers engaged. At the same time, it was important to stay true to the sources, which run to 27 pages. I also wanted to provide readers with sufficient context to allow them to draw their own conclusions rather than lecture them on how to interpret the events.cold-war-games (1)

BR: Why were they known as the ‘Friendly Games’?

HB: From the start, the government was determined to make them the ‘friendly’ Games. And so were ordinary Australians. Athletes were pestered for their autographs and often stopped by locals, who invited them into their home for a feed. Such was the desire of the Australian government to ensure that there were no unfriendly incidents that it resolutely discouraged defections, at least until after the Games ended.

BR: How did the two superpowers the USSR and United States use the games for political ends and propaganda?

HB: Both sides were keen to win more medals than their opponent. Sporting victories were used by propaganda machines on each side to claim the superiority of their respective political systems. In Melbourne, the USSR bested the US for the first time, and made sure the world knew it. On the other hand, the US acted like bad sports, coming up with excuses on why they were unable to top the medals table.

Overseas events – Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis – conspired to raise tensions during the Games. Six countries boycotted the Games: three Arab countries refused to come to Melbourne to protest at Israel’s invasion of the Suez Canal; and three European countries did not compete in protest over the invasion of Hungary by the Red Army.

Taking advantage of the Hungarian situation, US operatives encouraged athletes to defect. Over forty did not return home, which allowed American Cold War warriors to claim that they preferred to live in the free world rather than under communism.

BR: As an historian, what are some of the difficulties you face when it comes to bringing the past back to life?

HB: I like writing about people, which breathes human warmth into the stories I want to tell. Unfortunately, most official archives, particularly those in the Soviet Union, are dry reading and provide few insights into what the main protagonist were like. This made it difficult to bring to life Soviet athletes and to break down the stereotypes, namely that they were little more than emotionless automatons. Even Soviet era books on sporting heroes were little help, as they listed achievements and little more. Fortunately, after the demise of the Soviet Union, athletes who competed in Melbourne were interviewed. I was keen to weave their voices into the narrative.

BR: Have you read any superb non-fiction lately that you recommend to the Better Reading audience?

HB: I thoroughly enjoyed Arnold Zable’s The Fighter, which is a tender portrait of the Australian boxer Henry Nissen and his family. A wonderful stylist, Zable’s prose is poetical and captures the man and his times. A quite different book about a boxer is David Remnick’s King of the World on Mohammed Ali. Remnick cuts through the myth to discover the real man. I would also like to mention Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Stalin’s Team. Fitzpatrick has plumbed the Soviet archives to produce new insights of the Stalinist era, and it is narrative history at its best.

BR: What can we expect in the future – maybe another book?

HB: I certainly intend to continue writing more nonfiction books. It is just a matter of finding a topic that captures my imagination. At the moment, I’m looking into several projects. It may be related to sport, possible the Cold War or perhaps a subject quite removed from Cold War Games.

Harry Blutstein is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University. Since 1972, he has been a freelance journalist and has published feature articles in op-eds in major Australian newspapers on a wide variety of topics, including sport. His articles have ranged from bodybuilding to croquet.

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