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Olympic Games

The 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, the first to be held outside the northern hemisphere, marked a high moment in the city's postwar history. Plans to host the Games had been discussed informally among amateur athletes in the late 1930s, several of whom resolved as they embarked on military service in 1940 to win the Olympics for Melbourne after the war was over. One, Edgar Tanner, an ex-Olympic boxer and prisoner of war (POW), later became the secretary of the Victorian Olympic Council; another, former hurdler, POW and Menzies government minister Wilfrid Kent-Hughes, would later chair the Games Organising Committee. At its first postwar meeting on 2 June 1946 the Council agreed to initiate enquiries about holding the Games in Melbourne. In accordance with the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, a bid to host the Games had to come from the host city. Melbourne Lord Mayor, motor dealer Sir Raymond Connelly, joined ex-Olympian, tyre manufacturer and fellow councillor, Frank Beaurepaire, as the nucleus of the coalition of business, civic, political and sporting interests advancing the bid. Beaurepaire promoted the Games as a spur to business confidence and civic pride, as well as to amateur sport.

Australian delegates took their official bid document, bound in merino wool, to a meeting of the IOC during the 1948 London Olympics, plying European delegates who were still enduring postwar food rationing with food parcels and samples of Australian wine. However, a decision was postponed to a meeting in Rome the following year, when Melbourne won from Buenos Aires by a single vote.

Melbourne's representatives had only half-expected to win, and arrived back to find public opinion still divided on whether Melbourne really wanted, or could afford, the Games. Support was weaker in Victoria (63%) than in Australia as a whole (75%). Many considered the Games an extravagance when there was still a housing shortage, while country people complained that money was being spent on the city at their expense. Several sites were proposed for the main stadium - the Showgrounds (supported by the Country Party) and Princes Park - before Commonwealth and State government pressure forced a decision in favour of the Melbourne Cricket Ground where accommodation was augmented with a new Northern Stand. The most strikingly modernistic of several new sports grounds and venues was the riverside Olympic Swimming stadium designed by a team of young Melbourne architects. To allay criticisms of extravagance the Olympic Village at Heidelberg West was designed along austere lines to double as new public housing. Plans to house teams in broad continental groupings were hurriedly modified on the eve of the Games when conflict broke out between Israelis and Arabs, Russians and Hungarians. Streets named after British and Australian feats of arms were hastily renamed when it was pointed out that German athletes might not like to be housed in Tobruk Street or Indians in Lucknow Avenue.

Delays and disputes over organisation on the various building projects became so serious that on three occasions - in 1951, 1953 and 1955 - Melbourne came close to losing the Games. In April 1955 IOC President Avery Brundage stormed into Melbourne and delivered a stiff rebuke to the Games organisers. 'It sets me wondering why Australia "knocks" itself, when all other nations realise the potential boost they receive in the public's eyes when granted the Games', he observed. A year later most of the problems had been ironed out and the Games proceeded without serious glitches.

Playing on their home ground, Australia achieved its highest medal tally until Sydney's 2000 Olympics. Memories of Olympic torch-bearer Ron Clark's scorched arm, Betty Cuthbert's open-mouthed lunge at the tape, Dawn Fraser's first 100 m gold medal, Chilla Porter's twilight high-jump contest and John Landy's gallant bronze medal in the 1500 m were deeply etched in the collective memories of the thousands of Melburnians who packed the stands day after day in the greatest banquet in the history of the sports-mad metropolis. Behind the fa├žade of international harmony Cold War tensions simmered and occasionally boiled over, as in the bloody underwater exchanges in a Russia-Hungary water-polo match. But the last-minute adoption of the suggestion by a young Chinese-Australian, that athletes marching in the Closing Ceremony should mingle rather than march as national teams, created the lasting myth of Melbourne as 'The Friendly Games'.

Melbourne had sought the Games in order to impress the world. In 1951 businessmen predicted as many as 300 000 visitors would come, far more than could be carried on the few boats and planes available. Thousands of Melburnians offered to billet the predicted tourist overflow in their own homes: Barry Humphries' famous satirical creation, Melbourne housewife Edna Everage, made her first appearance in a skit on the Olympic hostess scheme. Local enthusiasm, however, ran well ahead of foreign interest in Games being held too far away for all but a few rich tourists. Three months away only 22% of Americans and 58% of Britons even knew that the Games were to be held in Australia. Broadcasting authorities hastened the introduction of television to enable Australians to see the Games on the little screen, although few households as yet had their own sets. Because the Games organisers bungled negotiations for overseas television rights, coverage on American and British networks was limited to just three minutes a day. 'Australia has become the "dark continent" to millions of sports-minded Americans', an American correspondent quipped.

Melburnians, however, were largely oblivious of these problems, content to enjoy the pleasant delusion of being the cynosure of the world, even if they weren't. 'It is now clear that what the world may gain from adjusting itself to Melbourne is nothing compared with Melbourne's gain from adjusting itself to the world', Douglas Wilkie acutely observed. In retrospect, the Games can be seen as the symbolic gateway to a period of increased self-confidence, affluence and modernity when international, both American and continental European, styles of food, dress, architecture and ways of life would begin to break down the hitherto unchallenged dominance of Anglo-Saxon attitudes in the public culture of the city.

Graeme Davison

Davison, Graeme, 'Welcoming the world: The 1956 Olympic Games and the re-presentation of Melbourne', The Forgotten Fifties, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, pp. 64-76. Details

See also

Dante Alighieri