|Writer, Malcolm Andrews remembers the 1956 Melbourne Olympics ...|
The Olympics came to Australia for the first time in 1956. Against all odds Melbourne was host to the world's greatest sporting festival.
An historic decision - Melbourne to host the 1956 Olympics !
There were many people involved in the efforts to persuade the IOC that Melbourne should have the 1956 Games, not the least Frank Beaurepaire, the great swimmer who won six medals in an Olympic career stretching from 1908 to 1924. He was Lord Mayor of Melbourne between 1940 and 1942 and worked long and hard to persuade, firstly, Australian business and government leaders and then, the Olympic chiefs that Melbourne deserved the honour. When his efforts succeeded he was again elected Lord Mayor so he could be the official host. Sadly, he died of a heart attack seven months before the Games opened.
There were many problems before the Games actually took place. Because of Australia's stringent animal quarantine laws one of the sports, the equestrian events, were for the one and only time held in a different location - in this case, Stockholm in Sweden. There were arguments about where the main stadium should be, and for a while there was so much industrial unrest and lack of endeavour that it looked a real possibility that there would be another first - the relocation of the Olympics to another country.
But eventually, on Thursday, 22 November 1956, some 103,000 spectators packed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground in brilliant sunshine (after almost two months of rain) to watch a young athlete later to become one of the most famous in the world, Ron Clarke, run into the arena with the Olympic flame. The Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the Games, the great mile runner John Landy took the oath on behalf of the 4,000-odd sportsmen and women from 67 nations and the Melbourne Olympics got under way.
Australia had its biggest representation ever with 291 sports stars - almost two and a half times as many as the previous biggest team, at Helsinki four years earlier. And with such a big team and incredible hometown support, it was predictable that it was (and still is) the most successful Olympics as far as medals won for Australia. There were 35 medals all told, 13 of them gold.
Eight of the golds and six of the minor medals came in the pool where the Australian freestylers reigned supreme. In both the men's and women's 100m freestyle it was a clean sweep for the Aussies. In the men's, Jon Henricks beat John Devitt and Gary Chapman, while in the women's Dawn Fraser won the first of three successive 100m golds. Runner-up was Lorraine Crapp, with Faith Leech third. Naturally enough, the Australians won both freestyle relays.
Murray Rose, who was a member of the victorious 4 x 200m freestyle relay team, picked up three golds, adding both the 400m and 1500m freestyle. Queensland medical student David Theile won the 100m backstroke crown - a title he was to retain in Rome four years later.
In the women's 400m freestyle Crapp reversed the result of the 100m, with Fraser taking the silver medal.
On the athletics track Australia discovered its so-called Golden Girl', Betty Cuthbert, who won the sprint double and a third gold in the relay. Picking up the bronze medal in both sprints was fellow Australian Marlene Mathews. However, the selectors dropped a bombshell by omitting Mathews from the relay, going instead for the veteran Shirley Strickland de la Hunty and the lesser known Norma Croker and Fleur Mellor. To this day Mathews describes the announcement of the selectors' decision as the most unbelievable moment in her life.
Strickland de la Hunty also took out the gold medal in the 80m hurdles to become the most successful Australian in Olympic history with seven medals in three Olympic Games (three gold, one silver and three bronze).
There were some poignant moments on the track. The sentimental favourite in the metric mile (the 1500m), John Landy, was not good enough on the day, finishing third to Irishman Ron Delany and Klaus Richtzenhain of the German team. Such was the ability of the 12 runners in the final that at the start of the last lap only 8 metres separated first from last. Ironically, Landy, ever the sportsman, had gone up to Delany before the race to wish him well with the words I think you can win this one'.
High jumper Charles "Chilla" Porter fought out a marathon battle which finished after sundown before he went down to American Charles Dumas. Porter improved more than 5 centimetres on his previous best to take the silver medal.
One surprise was the third placing in the final of the 100m by Australian Hec Hogan. He didn't know it at the time but he had contracted leukaemia and as the next Olympics were taking place in Rome, Hogan passed away.
Australia won a silver medal in the 4 x 400m relay. An interesting runner in that side was Kevan Gosper, who was to later become vice-president of the IOC. The others were Graham Gipson, David Lean and Leon Gregory.
Another gold medal went to lan Browne and Tony Marchant in the 2000m tandem cycling event, despite the fact that they had only teamed up 10 months earlier and had a lucky reprieve after being beaten during the repecharge round. Dick Ploog also won a bronze in 1000m sprint cycling.
Australia won its first two medals in yachting in 1956. In the races held in Port Phillip Bay, Rolly Tasker won a silver in the Sharpie class (12 square metres) and Jock Sturrock a bronze in the 5.5m class.
Another first medal came in the canoeing. Dennis Green and Wally Brown finished third in the 10,000m kayak pairs even though they were more used to the shorter events.
On Lake Wendouree, Ballarat, the precocious 19-year-old Australian Stuart Mackenzie won a silver medal in the single sculls. He was never to win an Olympic title but he later won a world crown and for several years made the famous Diamond Sculls at Henley-on-Thames his own. In the double sculls, former Olympic gold medallist Merv Wood teamed up with fellow policeman (and later disgraced drug dealer) Murray Riley to take bronze in the double sculls. In the eights Australia finished third, less than a canvas behind the gold medallists, the United States.
The Melbourne Olympics also created history by virtue of the way they finished. Previously the teams had marched in much the same fashion as at the Opening Ceremony. But a 17-year-old schoolboy, John lan Wing, wrote to the organisers suggesting that, when the Games closed, the sports men and women of the world should mingle, with no more than two teammates together, and not march but walk, waving to the crowd. The organisers agreed and Wing's suggestion became a reality which is now followed at every Olympics.