Thursday, 20 October 2016

Olympic Games Melbourne, 1956 - challenges for host city

Hosting an Olympic Games is a major undertaking and many challenges can arise. In the lead up to most Olympic Games we learn of problems in meeting deadlines, financial issues, construction concerns and sometimes threats to move the games to another location. The recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio is a prime example and reports have already begun circulating about the problems in staging the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. The lead up to the Melbourne Olympic Games also experienced many problems.
Argus 11 April 1896
The above statement was the first suggestion that the Olympic Games might one day be held in Melbourne. In 1906 Richard Coombes also informed Baron de Coubertin that Australia should host the Olympic Games.

The Victorian Olympic Council (VOC) was formed on 21 June 1946 and an item on the agenda was Discussion of Olympic Games for Australia. The  Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) endorsed the bid. At the 1948 Olympic Games in London Australian delegates promoted Melbourne as a venue. The vote on the city to host the 1956 Olympic Games was held in Rome in April 1949. There were six contenders - four cities in the USA, Buenos Aires and Melbourne. Melbourne won by one vote.

 The Organizing Committee for the Melbourne Olympic Games was established in November 1949. Eleven subcommittees were also established to assist in the organisation of the Olympic Games. These subcommittees were Technical, Finance and General Purposes, Construction, Housing and Catering, Press and Publicity, Film and Television, Communications, Transport, Reception, Medical and Fine Arts.

Venues
A variety of venues were required in order to host the Olympic Games. These included a main stadium, smaller stadiums / ovals, a pool, velodrome, boxing stadium, venues for fencing, shooting events, modern pentathlon, cycling, basketball plus water sports such as rowing, canoeing and yachting. Due to Australia's strict quarantine laws, equestrian events were held in Helsinki instead of in Melbourne - an issue not mentioned in Melbourne's submission to host the Olympic Games.

Indecision would be a key word to describe the initial planning for the venues for the various sports. There were also prolonged discussions as to the extent the Federal or State Governments would assist in funding the Olympic Games.

Seven sites were discussed as possibilities for the main stadium - the Showgrounds, Carlton Cricket Ground, Olympic Park, Albert Park, St Kilda Cricket Ground, University of Melbourne Sports Oval as well as the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It was not until February 1953 that the MCG was confirmed as the main stadium. Part of the problem had been the reluctance of the Melbourne Cricket Club to make the ground available as it would disrupt the normal use of the ground.

Alterations needed to be made. The surface of the MCG had to be regraded and a new stand was built after an old stand was demolished following the Royal Visit in 1954. The upgrades would mean that the MCG would be able to accommodate more than 100,000 people. As well as a venue for cricket the MCG was used for Australian Rules Football so it was not until after the 1955 VFL Grand Final that the turf on the ground could be removed and stored, the ground regraded and drainage pipes installed in time for the staging of the 1956 VFL Grand Final. The running track was then laid. During 1955 work banns delayed work at the MCG between August and October.

The second major venue was the Olympic Park Complex. This was to include the building of an Olympic Pool, the Olympic Park stadium, a second oval plus a veledrome. Olympic Park was situated close to the MCG.
Choosing the location for rowing and canoeing also took considerable time. Sites considered included Lake Bullen Merri, Hopkins River, Barwon River, Lake Learmonth and Lake Wendouree. Ballarat Shire did not want Lake Wendouree to be used and it was not until June 1955 that they finally agreed to the use of the lake for Olympic rowing and canoeing events.

Another challenge was to find suitable accommodation for the athletes and officials attending the Olympic Games. Once again a number of locations were considered including Prahran, University of Melbourne, Albert Park Barracks, Carlton and Heildelberg. The decision to build the village at Heidelberg was finally made in September 1953.

While Melbourne decided on the location of new venues and required alterations for existing structures, some members of the International Olympic Committee, particularly Mr Avery Brundage, began suggesting that the Olympic Games should be relocated to another city, probably one of the cities in the USA who had also applied to host the 1956 Olympic Games. It was eventually decided that the 1956 Olympic Games would remain in Melbourne.

Argus 4 February 1953
Boycotts
 Ninety-one countries were invited to attend the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Seventeen countries declined or withdrew for a variety of reasons. The Olympic Games had always been held in the Northern Hemisphere and some countries decided it was too far to travel so declined the invitation or, if they accepted the invitation, only sent small teams.

A month or two before the Olympic Games were due to begin seven countries boycotted the Melbourne Olympics due to political events. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycotted the games due to the Suez crisis in October 1956. The Hungarian Uprising on 4 November 1956 caused Spain, The Netherlands and Switzerland to boycott the games though Hungary still sent a team. The People's Republic of China announced that they were boycotting the games in November 1956 because Taiwan (Republic of China) had accepted an invitation to attend. These boycotts created additional challenges for those trying to organise events and accommodation, especially as they occurred so close to the commencement of the Olympic Games.

The final number of countries attending was sixty-seven.
Australian Women's Weekly 5 December 1956
Despite all these challenges the 1956 Olympic Games were held in Melbourne from 22 November to 8 December and they were declared a great success.

The following article looks at the venues used for the Melbourne Olympics and what happened to them after the games - Mixed Fortunes of Melbourne's 1956 Olympic Venues.

The book, Australia and the Olympic Games, by Harry Gordon (1994) contains chapters on the Melbourne Olympics including "A grenade called Brundage" (chapter 14) and "When the magic came to Melbourne" (chapter 15)

Official report of the Organizing Committee for the Games of the XVI Olympiard Melbourne 1956 is available online.

Search Trove for articles published in The Argus and The Age about the preparations for the Melbourne Olympics as well as the staging of the games in Melbourne from 22 November to 8 December 1956.

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