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The Olympic Games were held in Melbourne between 22nd November and 8th December, 1956. The first time they had ever been held in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia’s sporting prowess was well known world-wide through the triumphs of out tennis players and cricketers but when it came to Olympic sports we were virtually unknown despite our success in all Olympiads since the inception of the modern era. The simple fact was that generally speaking Olympic sports were not huge spectator sports in Australia so the world wondered what this little nation of 9 million people and 170 million sheep at the bottom of the world was thinking about when it had the audacity to apply to stage the Olympic Games.

Not only that, whenever a person overseas thought of Australia they thought of Sydney so what is this place called Melbourne thinking about? How dare they!

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The pitch that won Melbourne the first Olympics outside of Europe and North America.

Nevertheless, Melbourne got the IOC vote by a fairly comfortable margin in 1949 and we had 7 years to get organised. I was keenly interested in the Olympics because athletics was my chosen summer sport. Even before I left school I competed at Olympic Park with the Collegians Athletic Club specialising in the javelin throw. I was an unsuccessful aspirant for the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver but persisted anyway.

7 years sounds a long time to prepare for anything and it probably was but constant bickering about who was going to pay for what prevented any decision on where the main events were to be held. There were proposals to redevelop the Carlton footy ground and to construct a brand new stadium “somewhere”. Venues for sports that are not held in the main stadium were not a problem because there were plenty of them. The old Olympic Park complex was redeveloped to house the new Olympic Swimming Stadium, the Velodrome and the soccer/hoc key field but there was no decision on the main stadium.

In 1955, 18 months before the games were due to open the Chairman of the IOC, Avery Brundage, made an inspection tour and was not impressed. He threatened to take the games away from Melbourne and give it to Rime which had secured the 1960 Olympics and whose preparations were ahead of Melbourne. That galvanised the dithering committee and politicians. A decision was quickly made to use the MCG.

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The Melbourne Cricket Ground that held the 1956 Olympic Games

Funds were made available by loans from the Commonwealth government to remove the entire playing surface and replace it with dedicated athletic facilities then restore it after the games concluded. This work was carried out. The surface of the ground was heaped in a huge mound in the park adjacent to the ground and the athletic facilities were laid down. Avery Brundage, who had been characterised in the press as “Bravery Umbrage”, was appeased. The Olympic village was constructed and later became a Housing Commission development and remains so today.

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The furore over matters on the domestic front were however not alone. In 1956 two major events occurred. They were the invasion of the Suez Canal by British and French paratroopers which lead to a boycott by several nations and the Hungarian Revolution that was put down brutally by Russia with further boycotts in protest against Russian participation. In addition China, as we know it today, excluded itself because the Communist government was not recognised as having any validity. The Republic of China was a participant but that was in fact Taiwan which was recognised as the legitimate Chinese government.

 

Taiwan's History at the Olympic Games, and how it has been shaped with their relationship or lack there of to the People's Republic of China

1956 was a year when the cold war was in full swing. There was significant partisanship directed in support of Hungary and Czechoslovakia against Russia. There was resentment directed against Russia and the USA over amateur status. In 1956 the games were very strictly for amateurs only. Russia got around this by recruiting their sports stars into the military and the USA provided university scholarships. Both methods allowed their athletes to devote all of their time to train and be fully financially supported.

 

A further complication was that the equestrian events had to be held in Sweden because Australian quarantine regulations prevented the import of foreign horses.

In the end it was all successfully overcome and when the great day arrived it all went off very successfully. The Games were opened by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and they became known as The Friendly Games. This title was bestowed because of the closing ceremony. In prior years the closing ceremony had the teams marching in national formations. In 1956 that was replaced by all of the athletes mingling together and has been the norm ever since.

amateur footage of the closing ceremony 

The other good event to come out of these games was that they were the cause on television being introduced to Australia. TV came to Australia specifically for the Olympic Games and these games were the first to be televised world-wide. Admittedly the transmission was only black and white but nobody cared about that. It was a revolution that quickly took over the whole country and put many picture theatres out of business.

In 1956 I was a very junior trainee accountant. I did not have the means to attend more than two days and I chose the first day of competition and the fifth day when the 1,500 metres was to be run. The opening ceremony held no particular attraction against these two days.

I had a seat fairly close to the fence in what is called the “outer” for football crowds. Two events I can still clearly recall as if they were held last Saturday. The first was the 10,000 metres.

The Favourite was a tall lanky English bloke called Gordon Pirie. The other notable competitor was Vladimir Kuts, a Russian Army officer. From the gun, Kuts went to the lead. In long distance races, it is etiquette for the leading runners to make the pace in turn. Pirie just sat on Kuts’ heel never attempting to take the lead. Eventually, Kuts got fed up with that, turned around gestured Pirie to take the lead. Pirie did not respond so Kuts just ignored him, took off like he was in a sprint race and left the field for dead. He won easily. Pirie came about 4th or 5th and did not earn any plaudits from the crowd. On the other hand Kuts’ brilliant performance went down well and the general anti-Russian attitude seemed to soften somewhat.

  

MELBOURNE 1956 5000m (Vladimir Kuts) Amateur Footage - I couldn't find any footage of the 10000 metres - Monty

The other event that still thrills me was the high jump. The leading contender was the American, Charlie Dumas who held the world record and was the first man to clear 7 feet in the event. The Australian competitor was a little known bloke called “Chilla” Porter. Australia had won the high jump at the 1948 London Olympics and we gave ourselves a rough outside chance. The high jump pit was located in front of the members stand on the opposite side of the ground from my seat. It started late in the day but being late November the days were getting longer. Like all field sports, the high jump progresses slowly, each competitor performing one at a time. Dumas sat out the first few rounds and let the lesser lights do their bit. Once he started jumping things started getting interesting. Every time he cleared the bar so did Chilla Porter. In the end there were only the two of them left. If you can imagine a high jump contest having the crowd on the edge of its seat let me tell you it did.

 

Dumas kept raising the bar and Chilla just kept jumping. It started to get dark. There were no lights at the MCG in those days except for football training. Night time events were not possible. There was some talk of deferring the event until the next day but that was against the rules so they just kept jumping until from my seat it was barely visible but in the end Dumas prevailed. Chilla got a terrific reception which he justly deserved. The crowd was magnanimous towards Dumas too but their hearts were with the local boy.

My second day was specifically to see the 1,500 metres. Our man, John Landy, the world record holder, was favoured to win. At that time the world still mesmerised by the breaking of the “four minute mile”. Running a mile in less than 4 minutes was akin to breaking the sound barrier. Landy was the second man to do this in 1954. We were very confident of getting another gold medal but it was not to be. Landy came in 3rd behind an unknown Irishman called Ron Delaney. While everybody was disappointed that Landy did not win nobody begrudged the Irishman his victory because this little country did not share the spoils of Olympic fame very often.

 1956, Ronnie Delany, Olympic Games, 1500m Final, (Complete in full color). This is the complete race with Russian commentary.

That was the end of my Olympic experience but overall the games turned out to be a great success all round for Australia. We saw the emergence of the Golden Girls, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland and Marlene Matthews who spread-eagled the international competition. We stunned the world in swimming, yachting and cycling. The highlight of the “other” events was the water polo game between Hungary and Russia. The Hungarian revolution carried over into the pool and the water was said to be red with blood after several underwater altercations. In the end Hungary won to the great delight of the crowd.

 

After the games were over the MCG was restored to its former glory as a cricket ground and still remains as the world’s greatest sporting arena In 1956 it had a seating capacity of about 50,000.Today it is 103,000. The swimming pool complex was used for some years after that but eventually the pool was converted to a basketball stadium and the velodrome dismantled and turned into a rugby ground. Today the pool structure is still intact but it is the headquarters of the Collingwood Football Club. The old Olympic Park exists in new for catering for soccer and the former velodrome is now a dedicated rugby HQ for Melbourne Storm.

The athletes’ village is still there but has degenerated into a slum area. The Williamstown Rifle Range where the shooting was held is now a housing estate. Lake Wendouree, at Ballarat, where the rowing was held, and the Exhibition Building where the basketball was held, remain intact and, of course, Port Philip Bay is still there. Festival Hall, the boxing venue is also still there but now used for rock concerts. Boxing no longer enjoys the prominence that it once did.

I look back on the 1956 Olympics with a certain amount of pride on what Melbourne achieved by punching well above it weight. In the eyes of many who were there and who have participated in subsequent Olympic Games, the 1956 games are regarded as the best ever.

 

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