1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

November 16, 2018

On 22 November 1956, the Melbourne Olympic Games – or Games of the XVI Olympiad – were opened by the Duke of Edinburgh at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Legendary Aussie middle and long distance runner, Ron Clarke, used the Olympic torch to light the stadium’s flame, which stayed alight until the closing ceremony 16 days later (on 8 December).

The Melbourne Olympics were the first ever held in the southern hemisphere – indeed outside of Europe and North America. As the “summer” Olympics are held in the warmer months, this inaugural, antipodean-hosting meant that, for the first time, the Olympics took place during the colder months of the northern hemisphere. This concerned the athletes’ establishment and International Olympic Committee members alike, particularly during the 1956 Games’ bidding process in 1949, as most of the world’s athletes would want to be in their usual resting or “off-season” then.

On home ground, Australia came a magnificent third overall in its first own Olympics, winning 13 gold medals and 35 medals overall. The Soviet Union came first, winning 37 gold and 98 medals overall, with the US second (32 gold and 74 overall).

Australian highlights were (western-Sydney born-and-bred) Betty Cuthbert becoming the “Golden Girl” by winning three gold medals in her track events (the sprints) and Murray Rose winning three gold medals in swimming (longer distance freestyle).

Despite an inauspicious lead-up, and some other challenges, once underway, the Melbourne Olympics progressed smoothly and ended up a great success, boosting Australia's psyche and national pride. (See further details below.)

Celebrate the anniversary of the opening and successful hosting of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games by:

  • if you are in/near Melbourne, visiting the MCG and observing the statue of “Golden Girl” Betty Cuthbert outside the stadium
  • if you are in/near Cairns, visiting the 1956 Olympic Torch Monument on the esplanade there
  • watching this official 1957 film of the Melbourne Olympics
  • viewing these shorter clips of our first Games, and Melbourne way back then
  • exploring further the context of those Games
  • going for a jog, or doing some extra exercise, in honour of the event, and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, proud Aussies, those that attended the games and those that are fascinated by our unique history and path of achievement.

Further details on the Melbourne Olympics

The Melbourne bid for the 1956 Olympics beat Buenos Aires (Argentina) by just one vote in 1949, giving us seven years to prepare. The Victorian and Federal governments squabbled over funding levels and responsibility. When Liberal Premier Henry Bolte replaced Labor Premier John Cain Snr in June 1955, preparations were so far behind schedule that Melbourne was at grave risk of losing the Olympics to Rome (whose preparations for hosting the subsequent 1960 games were more advanced than Melbourne’s by early-mid 1955).

The Games were embroiled in geo-political controversy:

  • 1956 was the year Egypt under President Nasser “nationalised” the Suez Canal, sparking retaliatory action from Israel, the UK and France to regain western control of the world’s most critical ship trading route. As a result of the retaliation, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted the Melbourne Olympics.
  • Just a month before the Games, the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution – a nationwide revolt against the Marxist-Leninist and Soviet-puppeteer government of Hungary. The presence of the Soviet Union at the Games saw the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Cambodia withdraw. The water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union got ugly in the pool - and in the stands - before the result (4-0) was called early. (The Hungarian team went on to win the gold medal.)
  • within two weeks of the opening ceremony, Mao’s Communist China announced its boycott of our Games due to Taiwan (the Republic of China) being allowed to compete.

Not long after Melbourne won the bid, it became known that the usual equestrian events in the Olympics could not be held in Australia due to our necessarily strict quarantine regulations. This meant that Stockholm, Sweden was ultimately selected as an alternative host for these events, conducted in June 1956. This was the only second time the Olympics were not held entirely in the host country. (Some events of the 1920 Antwerp (Belgium) Olympics were held in Amsterdam.)


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