Daniel Magay was a member of the Olympic Gold medal winning Hungarian sabre team at the 1956 Melbourne games. Along with many other Hungarian athletes who wished to escape re-occupation of Hungary by the Soviet Union, which happened while the Olympics were underway, he chose to come to the United States on a plane chartered by Sports Illustrated magazine.
The Hungarian sabre team, awaiting the presentation of the gold medals. From front to back, Aladar Gerevich, Pal Kovas, Rudolf Karpati, Jeno Hamori, Daniel Magay, Attila Keresztes.
Magay won the US National sabre championships in 1957, beginning a period of domination by former Hungarian nationals. In 1957 he also won team sabre, with friends Tomas Orley and George Domolky, with the great George Piller as coach. Magay went on to win two more national sabre titles (1958, 1961), another team title in 1961, then retired from competition in 1966 after taking the silver at Nationals for the second time (1962 was the first). He went on to have a distinguished career as a chemical engineer at the Raychem Corporation in Menlo Park, CA.
Although our perception of the sport of fencing may be different today, Daniel Magay’s father wished him to try fencing to introduce his son to a ‘macho’ sport. Born in Szeged, young Daniel’s introduction to the sport was with Eduardo Armentano, one of the many Italian-trained fencing masters who made a career in Hungary.
Unlike some, Armentano maintained the strict Italian traditions that had, especially in the sabre, been supplanted by the more modern Hungarian style. Daniel came next under the tutelage of Ferenc Marki, who had trained at the famed Toldi Miklos school under Laszlo Borsodi and Alfred Gellert. After a period of un-learning, Magay began to excel in local competitions. This also provided opportunity for Magay and his family who were out of favor with the communist government. Prior to the coming of the communists, the Magay family had been wealthy aristocrats. All that changed under the new regime and the family had to struggle to stay alive. Jobs for the adults were for menial tasks and advanced education for the children was out of the question. For Daniel, fencing provided an opportunity to survive.
His competitive results began to gain him notice as early as 1948 at the age of 16. He was included in a few international competitions and eventually selected for the 1954 World Championship sabre team, winning team gold in Luxembourg. Prior to the selection of the team for 1956, Magay and the other top fencers were brought to Budapest for training.
Training for the Olympics. Magay is 3rd from the top.
There, Magay trained along side all the great Hungarian sabre champions, as well as the younger fencers who looked to unseat reigning team members to gain a place on the squad for Melbourne. Three of the experienced members (who had never won individual gold) had to make way for the most promising youngsters, who were expected to continue the Hungarian domination in sabre.
Standing: Far left, Tomas Orley; 3rd from left, Jeno Hamori, then George Piller, Daniel Magay and Attila Keresztes. These four fencers combined, leaving Piller as coach aside, won 7 US National sabre individual championships.
The Hungarian sabre teams during this period absolutely dominated world competition. How dominant? From 1928 through 1956 they won individual and team gold at every Olympic or World Championship in which they participated. (At the 1929 Worlds no team event was held. All events were suspended from 1937 to 1947, and Hungary did not participate in 1949 & 1950 due to lack of funds.) Every. Gold. Medal. Twenty three different fencers participated in the winning of those medals in that period.
In such an environment, the daily training regimen pitted the best 15 to 20 sabre fencers in the world against one another. But another task altogether was finding the sweet spot for the Olympic team. And clearly the Hungarians shifted squads around for various international competitions, including the World Championships. In 1954, Daniel Magay was included on the World Championship team, where he helped with the team gold and made the individual final. For the 1955 Worlds, Magay was held out, but Hamori and Keresztes were dropped in. Thus, by the time the 1956 Olympic team selection was to occur, these three younger fencers were physically ready for the challenge, and tested in the heat of international competition.
In this way, the Hungarian hegemony of domination in sabre was well assured. The expectation was that, after 1956 at least two of the old guard could retire – Aladar Gerevich had been on the squad since 1931 and Pal Kovacs since 1933. Rudolf Karpati, a relative youngster, came on board in 1948. Another teammate, Tibor Berczelly, who had individual silver and two bronzes, had been on the team since 1935. In addition to Magay, Hamori and Keresztes, there was an even younger group in preparation, due to the advent of the Junior World Championships, held for the first time in 1954. The Hungarians dominated the sabre scene at that event as well, taking gold in ’54, ’55 & ’56 with 3 different fencers and having two of the three medals going to Hungary each of these years.
All of this planning and strategizing came to a crashing halt in 1956 when the Soviet tanks stormed into Budapest while the Olympics were underway in Melbourne, Australia. Magay, Hamori, Keresztes and Tomas Orley, one of the Junior World Champions, all left Hungary for the US. Gerevich, Kovacs and Karpati all remained on the team through another Olympic cycle – and a team gold.
News article from 1957. This group of expats won the gold medal in team sabre at the US Nationals. Magay took the individual gold and Orley the bronze.
Of the fencers who settled in San Francisco, positive changes came swiftly. Orley and Domolky attended Stanford, Magay went to Cal. The San Francisco Hungarian community rallied to support Piller and opened the Pannonia Athletic Club and installed Piller as coach.
Much more on this topic ahead!