On this day: The Melbourne Olympic Games open

By Amelia Caddy November 20, 2015
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Australia’s highest ever Olympic medal tally ranking was won the very first time it hosted, at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

THE CROWD THAT gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on the afternoon of 22 November 1956 for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games was likely surprised as a lanky 19-year-old Australian long-distance runner named Ron Clarke entered the stadium holding the final Olympic torch.

The final runner had been kept a secret until this moment. However, although Ron would go on to become one of the world’s most famous long-distance runners, the junior world record holder wasn’t competing at the 1956 Games. Nonetheless, the budding athlete’s later rise would echo the sporting aspirations of young Australia.

Touching the flame to a cauldron at the MCG, Ron opened the 16th Olympic Games.

Melbourne Olympic Games: a turning point for the nation

These Games would be a watershed moment in Australia’s sporting history. The country stamped its prowess on the world stage by placing third in the medal tally – its highest position to this day. At the same time, Australia also proved it could pull off a huge international event, even if it was by the skin of its teeth.

“The lead up to the Games from an organisational point of view was actually a bit of a shambles,” says Dr Tony Ward, a historian at the University of Melbourne.

Just 18 months out from the opening ceremony, Melbourne was so unprepared that the International Olympic Committee threatened to move the Games to another city.

Organisers couldn’t agree on where the main stadium should be in Melbourne, so the Victorian premier eventually stepped in and insisted upon the Melbourne Cricket Ground, thus allowing preparations to move forward.

The Melbourne Olympics and the age of the golden girls

Australia’s impressive medal count was largely due to the success of the ‘golden girls’.
Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland all took out multiple gold medals in swimming or track events. Many wondered why Australian women did so well.

At the time, Dawn Fraser famously stated, “Australian women have always been gutsier than the men,” but Tony Ward says it probably had more to do with Australian attitudes toward female athletes.

“Australia was more open to women participating than other countries were, and so we drew on a bigger talent pool,” he says.

Ian Jobling, director of the Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Queensland, agrees, but says it also “didn’t cost a lot of money,” to have women compete in pools and on tracks that already existed.

Global politics plays out at the Melbourne Olympics

In the lead up to the games, conflict had plagued many northern hemisphere nations.
In July 1956, Egypt nationalised the Franco-British controlled Suez Canal. France and Britain invaded the country, and Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq subsequently refused to participate in the Games in protest.

Meanwhile, the USSR was quashing the short-lived Hungarian revolution, placing the nation back under Soviet rule.

Australia decided the Soviets should still be able to compete at Melbourne, leading the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland to boycott the Games.

A vicious water polo match between Hungary and the USSR would later play out during the Games, resulting in several punches between players and at least one black eye.

Closing the Melbourne Olympics with an unusual show of unity

Despite the turbulent political environment, the Melbourne Olympics closed on a note of global unity.

Upon the suggestion of an Australian schoolboy, John Ian Wing, all the athletes walked together in the closing ceremony instead of in teams, as tradition dictated.

“That was seen as being both a great improvement to the international spirit of the Games and being something that was sort of typically Australian,” says Tony.

In his letter to the Melbourne Organising Committee, John wrote: “During the Games, there will be only one nation. War, politics and nationality will be all forgotten, what more could anybody want…”