Route of the 1956 Olympic torch relay, from Cairns to Melbourne. In 1956 runners bore the Olympic flame across Australia, on a path from Cairns to Melbourne, where the summer games were to be held. But before the flame even got as far as Sydney, it had to endure a series of setbacks. Torrential rains soaked it. Burning heat almost overwhelmed the runners. The flame even went out a few times. Then in Sydney itself it encountered a situation unique in Olympic history.
Cross-country champion Harry Dillon was scheduled to bear the flame into Sydney, where he would present it to the mayor, Pat Hills. After making a short speech, Hills would pass the flame along to another runner, Bert Button.
Thirty-thousand people lined the streets of Sydney waiting for Dillon to arrive. Reporters stood ready with their cameras to record the historic occasion. Finally the runner appeared, bearing the flame aloft, and everyone began cheering. As the crowd pressed forward a police escort surrounded the runner in order to keep order.
With this escort around him, the runner made his way through the streets all the way to the Sydney Town Hall. He bounded up the steps and handed the torch to the waiting mayor who graciously accepted it and turned to begin his prepared speech.
Then someone whispered in the mayor’s ear, “That’s not the torch.” Suddenly the mayor realized what he was holding. Held proudly in his hand was not the majestic Olympic flame. Instead he was gripping a wooden chair leg topped by a plum pudding can inside of which a pair of kerosene-soaked underwear was burning with a greasy flame. The mayor looked around for the runner, but the man had already disappeared, melting away into the surrounding crowd.
The identity of the rogue runner was only publicly revealed years later. It was Barry Larkin, a veterinary science student at Sydney University’s St. Johns College. He had dreamed up the prank in collusion with eight other students.
Their intention was to poke fun at the torch relay because they felt it was being treated with too much reverence considering the tradition’s dubious past. It traced its origins back to the 1936 Berlin games organized by the Nazis.
Originally, Larkin was not supposed to have been the bearer of the flaming underwear. One of the students had dressed up in white shorts and a white top, but he panicked at the last minute and dropped the torch. Larkin, wearing a tie, picked it up and started running.
The official flame-bearer had been delayed outside of Sydney, so the crowd assumed Larkin was the real thing. Soon a police escort joined him. Larkin later recalled in an interview what the experience felt like: “The noise was quite staggering. There were flashes of photography. I felt very strange because I knew I was carrying a fake torch. The only thing I could think about was what do I do when I got there. I was helped by Pat Hills. I just turned around and walked back down the steps, through the crowd and onto a tram and back to college.”
The mayor took the prank in good humor, but the crowd, once it realized what had happened, began to grow unruly. When the real runner arrived a few minutes later, the crowd was milling around excitedly in the street, as if stirred up by the mischief. In the crush of people, women began screaming for the safety of their children. Hills called out for calm. A police convoy had to clear a path for the flame-bearer to get through.
When the torch was passed to the next runner, Bert Button, an army truck had to clear a path to allow him to continue with the relay.
Back at his college, Larkin was given a hero’s reception. When he walked into the hall for breakfast the next morning, his fellow students gave him a standing ovation. Even the rector of the college walked up to him and said, “Well done, son.”
The fake torch was taken to a Town Hall reception, and ended up in the possession of John Lawler, a man who had been travelling with the relay in a car. He stored it for years beneath his bed, until eventually it got thrown out while tidying.
In 2000, the Olympic Games were again held in Australia, and once again the Olympic Torch was carried by runners around the country. Numerous newspapers took the opportunity to retell the story of Larkin’s 1956 prank, prompting authorities to make preparations in case someone would try to repeat it.
Security guards lined the route, keeping people away from the runner. Many bystanders complained they couldn’t even see the torch. A few pranksters did their best to disrupt the relay. Two teenagers tried to grab the torch, and one young man tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher. But no one succeeded in replicating Larkin’s prank.