Every country competing in the Olympic Games has particular events in which it excels, and for Hungary the biggest event of the Games is undoubtedly water polo. So strong is the team’s record in the event that the country’s men’s team has won gold medals on eight separate occasions since 1932, yet as the cream of the world’s players descended on the Ying Tung Natatorium in Beijing, the expectations were not as high as usual.
Their form had been indifferent leading into the tournament and coach Denes Kemeny was under pressure from the media back home about team selection and performance.
Hungary was hoping for a third straight gold, but unlike in Athens four years earlier when they went into the event as world champions, the team’s form had not been consistent.
Slowly and steadily, however, the Hungarians built the momentum necessary to see them become the first team since Great Britain in 1920 to achieve three consecutive golds.
They started somewhat inauspiciously with a 10-10 draw against Montenegro in the opening qualifying match, but it was to prove their only blemish in the competition.
Wins against Greece, 1996 champions Spain, Australia and Canada followed and the Hungarians found themselves top of Group A.
Meanwhile the United States team proved itself the surprise package of the competition, gaining wins against hosts China, Croatia and most notably Italy on their way to qualifying for the semis.
Hungary faced a repeat match of the opener against Montenegro, and on this occasion triumphed 11-9 while the Americans made sure of their first medal in men’s water polo for 20 years when they stunned Serbia 10-5.
For the first three quarters of the final, the Americans admirably kept up with the Hungarians, recovering from 6-4 and 9-8 down to tie it at 9-9.
But the Hungarians’ superior stamina and clinical play in front of goal paid off with Peter Biros scoring a hat-trick as they preserved their unrivalled record in the pool.
Coach Kemeny and other non-playing team members jumped into the pool at the moment of victory. Serbia edged Montenegro out for the bronze.