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When Sándor Tarics arrived at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, aged 23, it seemed like he was walking into a German military boot camp. “There were swastikas everywhere,” Tarics remembers from his waterfront home in Belvedere, California. “There were all these uniformed soldiers. And Hitler.”
The Hungarian water polo player and his team went on to take the gold medal, pushing the Germans into second place, to Hitler’s dismay. Now 98, and the oldest living Olympic champion, Tarics is short and stocky, a bit uneasy on his feet, but firm that politics has no place in athletics. “They are like oil and water,” he says.
Tarics was discovered at a high school water polo competition in Budapest when he was about 13. His Olympic training began with regular scrummages and water training in the summer. In the winter, given the lack of indoor pools, he and the other boys focused on boxing. “Not to learn to hit anybody,” he says, “but to learn how to be hit.” Water polo is a rough game, he explains. There is a tendency for the water to “turn a little pinkish.” Players must not get intimidated. “If you are afraid that you are going to get hurt, then you are no good,” he says. “So you do boxing to learn how to take it and not to complain.”
During the years that followed his victory, while political turmoil brewed around his country’s borders, Tarics trained for the 1940 Olympics. But before he had a chance at another medal, Hitler invaded Poland, and the Games were cancelled. Tarics was 26. Over the next few years, he watched as Jewish friends and acquaintances were rounded up in Budapest and loaded onto trains headed for Auschwitz. People who spoke out disappeared. The Russians invaded Hungary, and soon he was being investigated by communist committees. “They gave me rations for food, but they took away my voting rights,” he says. “If they take away your voting rights, then you’re nobody.”
He immediately began searching for ways to get out, to get to the US, leaning on the engineering degree he completed the spring before the 1936 Olympics. He soon scored a teaching fellowship, and the coveted visa that came with it, from a university in Indiana. “I was able to leave the mess in Europe behind,” he says.
Tarics eventually became a US citizen and settled in northern California, where he had a successful 37-year engineering career redesigning buildings for earthquake safety. As he nears his 99th birthday, Tarics has no medical problems, other than sometimes losing his balance. He stopped playing tennis a few years ago, and now goes to the local club with his wife, Elisabeth, to watch the kids play, or stays home and works on mathematical problems for fun. His plan is to make it to 103, so he can see the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
But first, he and his wife are gearing up for their trip to London. They went to the 2008 Games in Beijing, where the final water polo match pitted Hungary against the US. Tarics admits he rooted for the Hungarians then, and will again this year should a similar duel arise. “In America, you can do that. You’re not a traitor,” he says. “It’s just a game, not war.”
The balance between fighting and play has been an ongoing theme for Tarics. Despite the atrocities he has witnessed, the many wars he has lived through, he is upbeat, cracking jokes, and putting hopeful twists on sad tales. He is opposed to the interference of politics in sports, but open to the influence of sport over politics. “The creator respects us when we work, but loves us when we play,” he is fond of saying. “If everyone would sing, dance, and play ball, there would be no war.”