1956 Melbourne, Australia
The 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XVI Olympiad, was held in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956, with the exception of the equestrian events, which could not be held in Australia due to quarantine regulations. Instead, those events were held five months earlier in Stockholm, Sweden, marking the second time that events of the same Olympics were held in different countries. (At the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, one sailing event had been held in Dutch waters because of water quality).
The 1956 Games were the first to be staged in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the first to be held outside Europe and North America.
Initial Concerns of the Melbourne Olympics
Many members of the IOC were sceptical about Melbourne as an appropriate site. Its location in the Southern Hemisphere was a major concern, since the reversal of seasons would mean the Games were held during the northern winter. This was thought likely to inconvenience athletes from the Northern Hemisphere who were accustomed to resting during their winter.
Melbourne was selected, in 1949, to host the 1956 Olympics by a one-vote margin. The first sign of trouble was the revelation that Australian equine quarantine would prevent the country from hosting the equestrian events. Stockholm was selected as the alternate site, so equestrian competition began on 10 June, five and a half months before the rest of the Olympic games were to open, half the world away.
The problems of the Melbourne Games were compounded by bickering over financing among Australian politicians. Faced with a housing shortage, the Premier of Victoria refused to allocate money for the Olympic Village (eventually sited in Heidelberg West), and the country’s Prime Minister barred the use of federal funds.
At one point, IOC President Avery Brundage suggested that Rome, which was to host the 1960 Games, was so far ahead of Melbourne in preparations that it might be ready as a replacement site in 1956.
As late as April 1955, Brundage was still doubtful about Melbourne, and was not satisfied by an inspection trip to the city. Construction was well underway by then, thanks to a $4.5 million federal loan to Victoria, but it was behind schedule. He still held out the possibility that Rome might have to step in.
By the beginning of 1956, though, it was obvious that Melbourne would be ready for the Olympics.
Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon announced that they would not participate in the Olympics in response to the Suez Crisis when Egypt was invaded by Israel, the United Kingdom, and France after Egypt nationalised the Suez canal. Meanwhile, in 1956 the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution, and the Soviet presence at the Games led to the withdrawal of the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.
Less than two weeks before the 22 November opening ceremony, the People’s Republic of China chose to boycott the event because the Republic of China had been allowed to compete under the name “Formosa”.
Although the number of countries participating (67) was almost the same as in 1952 (69), the number of athletes competing dropped sharply, from 4,925 to 3,342. (This figure does not include the 158 athletes from 29 countries who took part in the Stockholm equestrian competition.)
Highlights of the Melbourne Olympics
Once underway, the Games unfolded smoothly, and became known as the “Friendly Games”. Betty Cuthbert, an 18-year-old from Sydney, won the 100- and 200-metre dashes and ran a great final leg in the 4 x 100-metre relay to overcome Great Britain’s lead and claim her third gold medal. The veteran Shirley Strickland repeated in the 80-metre hurdles and also ran on the relay team, running her career total to seven, three golds, a silver, and three bronze medals.
But it was in swimming that the Australians really shone. They won all of the freestyle races, men’s and women’s, and collected a total of eight gold, four silver and two bronze medals. Murray Rose became the first male swimmer to win two freestyle events since Johnny Weissmuller in 1924, while Dawn Fraser won gold medals in the 100-metre freestyle and as the leadoff swimmer on the 4 x 100-metre relay team.
Controversial judging prevented the United States from winning all four diving events, which had become almost customary. Pat McCormick again took gold medals in both the springboard and the platform, and Bob Clotworthy won the men’s springboard. However, Gary Tobian was given unusually low scores by the Soviet and Hungarian judges, and he finished second by just .03 to Mexico’s Joaquim Capilla in the platform event.
United States men dominated track and field. They not only won 15 of 24 events, they swept four of them and finished first and second in five others. Bobby Morrow led the way with gold medals in the 100- and 200-metre dashes and the 4 x 100-metre relay. Tom Courtney barely overtook Great Britain’s Derek Johnson in the 800-metre run, then collapsed from the exertion and needed medical attention.
Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union ran away from his competition in the 5,000- and 10,000-metre runs, while Ireland’s Ron Delaney ran a brilliant 53.8 over the last 400 metres to win the 1,500-metre run, in which favourite John Landy of Australia finished third.
There was a major upset, marred briefly by controversy, in the 3,000-metre steeplechase. Little-known Chris Brasher of Great Britain finished well ahead of the field, but judges announced that he was disqualified for interfering with Norway’s Ernst Larsen, and they anointed Sándor Rozsnyói of Hungary as the winner. Brasher’s appeal, remarkably, was supported by Larsen, Rozsnyói, and fourth-place finisher Heinz Laufer of Germany. The decision was reversed and Brasher became the first Briton to win a gold medal in track and field since 1936.
Only two world records were set in track and field. Mildred McDaniel, the first American woman to win gold in the sport, set a high jump record of 5 feet 91⁄4 inches (1.759 m) and Egil Danielsen of Norway overcame a troublesome wind with a remarkable javelin throw of 281 feet 21⁄2 inches (85.712 m).
Throughout the Olympics, Hungarian athletes were cheered by fans from Australia and other countries. Many of them gathered in the boxing arena when thirty-year-old Laszlo Papp of Hungary won his third gold medal by beating José Torres for the light-middleweight championship.
A few days later, the crowd was with the Hungarian water polo team in its match against the Soviet Union which became known as the Blood In The Water match. The game became rough and, when a Hungarian was forced to leave the pool with blood streaming from a cut over his eye, a riot almost broke out. But police restored order and the game was called early, with Hungary leading 4–0. The Hungarians went on to win the gold medal.
Despite the international tensions of 1956 – or perhaps because of them – a young Melburnian, John Ian Wing, came up with a new idea for the closing ceremony. Instead of marching as teams, behind their national flags, the athletes mingled with one another as they paraded into and around the arena for a final appearance before the spectators. That began an Olympic tradition that has been followed ever since.
After the Melbourne Olympics
A total of 67 nations competed in Melbourne. Ethiopia, Fiji, Kenya, Liberia, Federation of Malaya, North Borneo (modern-day Sabah of Malaysia), and Uganda made their Olympic debut. Athletes from East Germany and West Germany competed together as the United Team of Germany, an arrangement that would last until 1968. For the first time the team of Republic of China effectively represented only Taiwan.
The Olympics left Melbourne with some landmark buildings. The Olympic Stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was demolished in 2004. However, the former Olympic Pool remains as part of the Westpac Centre at the Olympic Park complex. The former athlete’s village in Heidelberg West, Victoria remains as public housing. St Kilda Town Hall, where the fencing events were held, also still remains.