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Never Forget, Melbourne Hosted The Olympics And It Was As Iconic As Sydney

1956 was known as the "Friendly Games".

These are scenes from Melbourne in November 1956.

John Dominis / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
courtesy of AAP
John Dominis / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Sure, it's hard to forget the epic event that Sydney staged during the 2000 Olympics, but that wasn't the first time Australia had hosted the games.

In 1956, Melbourne brought together a world still reeling from World War II and struggling from one international crisis to another. Just a month before the games began, the Hungarian revolution and the Suez Canal crisis had happened.

The political tension was evident as the world converged on Melbourne, but the city held up its end of the bargain to champion sportsmanship in true Olympic spirit. Here are some iconic moments from the 1956 Olympics:

1. Melbourne hosted the first Olympics in the southern hemisphere.

Public Record Office of Victoria / VPRS 10742/P0, unit 5, item A70
courtesy of AAP

Since then, the games have been held south of the equator only twice: Sydney in 2000, and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

2. This meant big adjustments in the dates.

Public Record Office of Victoria / VPRS 10742/P0, unit 5, item A65

There was a lot of fuss over when the games would be held. Previous Olympics were staged in the summer of the northern hemisphere, and athletes were used to that. However, Melbourne chose to hold it during the Australian summer, which meant the world had to fly south in November.

Almost half a century later, Sydney decided to hold the games in September. And this year, because the climate in Rio de Janeiro is tropical, the games could be held in August.

3. "But there's no Olympic Park in Melbourne, so where was it held?" ... You might ask.

Public Record Office of Victoria / VPRS 10742/P0, unit 5, item A88
Getty Images

The centerpiece of the Melbourne Olympics and the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies is what you now know as the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG, or The G). The structure wasn't purposefully built for the Olympics, though. It existed prior to 1956, the old grandstand was simply replaced and extended to accommodate the Olympic crowd.

4. The Olympic venues are no longer home to the sports they hosted during the Melbourne Olympics.

Keystone-france / Getty Images

What we now regard as Melbourne's premier sports precinct looked somewhat different in 1956.

The MCG had already been hosting cricket tests even before the Olympics. But because cricket isn't in the Olympics, the stadium was the venue for the ceremonies and the athletics events.

Melbourne Park, which is now home to the Tennis Australian Open, was just a vast piece of land. Tennis wasn't featured in 1956.

Within Melbourne Park, Hisense Arena converts into a velodrome for cycling events. The velodrome used in 1956, however, looked very different. For one, it was an open-air venue.

While the structural integrity of the former Swimming and Diving Stadium was maintained, the building we now know as the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre only has half the size of an Olympic pool. The rest of the space was replaced with a parquetry floor and hosted entertainment and basketball events in the 1990s.

The other Olympic stadiums in the precinct are currently home to AFL and NRL teams.

The lake where the rowing events were held dried out after a drought.

William West / AFP / Getty Images

The 1956 rowing events were held at Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, 100km from Melbourne CBD. The boat sheds are still intact but the area that was once the lake turned into desolate land in 2006, completely dried out because of the drought. The lake has recovered since.

5. World War II was just a decade prior, and superpowers of the world were transfixed by the Cold War.

Ed Bailey / AP
Lesky Auctions, courtesy of AAP

Just a month before the Melbourne Olympics started, Hungary staged a revolt against the powerful Soviet regime. Hungarian athletes still decided to participate at the games, even if this meant going head to head with the Soviet Union.

6. True enough, there was "blood in the water". Literally.

Public Record Office of Victoria / VPRS 10742/P0, unit 18, item C2457

When you put citizens of political rivals together, no matter what the situation, things are bound to get heated. Hungary and the Soviet Union met for a water polo match and it got bloody very quickly. Hungary had the backing of the Australian and international crowd, and went on to wipe out the Soviets 4-0.

7. Some Hungarians decided not to go home.


With Hungary rife with political unease, some of its athletes did not fly home, and instead sought political asylum in Australia or the United States.

8. East and West Germany unified as one team.

John Dominis / Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee denied East Germany's demands to send its own team in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. So in the following Olympiad, both German sides agreed to come to Melbourne as one contingent, officially called the Équipe Unifiée d'Allemagne (EUA).

This arrangement only lasted another two Olympics. From 1968 until the end of the Cold War, East Germany sent its own delegation.

9. Boycotts. Boycotts everywhere.

John Dominis / Getty Images

The foreign attack on the Suez Canal led Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon to boycott the event.

Also, because of the Soviet Union's participation, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland refused to attend. And the People's Republic of China pulled out at the last minute because the Republic of China (Taiwan) was allowed to compete.

10. It wasn't all politics though. Below you can see the former mayor of the Gold Coast, who was once an Olympian and was selected to be the torch bearer for the Melbourne Games.

Public Record Office of Victoria / VPRS 10742/P0, unit 5, item A58

Ron Clarke was an athlete, known for middle and long distance running, well before he ran for public office. In 1956, he was just 19 years old when he was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron. While he did not win any medals in Melbourne, he went on to win the bronze for the 10,000m event in 1964 and set 17 world records during his athletic career.

11. This French dude chilling after he won gold for the men's marathon.

Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Alain Mimoun of France cooled down like a boss after coming in first at the Olympic marathon event - by lying on the ground wrapped in a blanket, with a drink in one hand. He made sure everyone knew his ranking though, by perching his feet on the first place marker.

12. Melbourne missed out on hosting any equestrian events, thanks to the super strict Australian quarantine laws.


We all know how fervently Australia sticks by its quarantine regulations. The Melbourne Olympics was no exception, and because of this, no equestrian event could be held alongside other sports. Instead, they were staged in Stockholm early that year.

13. Australia has always excelled in swimming, and the Melbourne Olympics proved that to the world.

Public Record Office Victoria / VPRS 10742 P0, B1527

In all, Australia won 14 medals across all swimming events, including eight gold, four silver, and two bronze medals.

14. Of course, world records were broken. One of which was by Australia's Dawn Fraser in the pool.

Getty Images

Dawn Fraser set the 100m freestyle record at 1:02.0, a record she held until 1972.

15. Here's what the medals looked like ...

Herbert Ludford / AP

Back in the day, medals weren't draped over an athlete. In the case of Melbourne, the face featured the traditional Trionfo design by Giuseppe Cassioli, a design that was used from 1928 until 1988. The medals were presented in a velvet box.

16. And of course, being the diplomatic citizens of the world that Australians are, the organisers insisted that all athletes march without country distinction during the closing ceremony.

Public Record Office of Victoria / VPRS 10742/P0, unit 18, item C2610

Melbourne teen John Wing started a tradition in 1956. He came up with idea to make athletes march together as one during the closing ceremony to symbolise a unified world. The IOC took this into consideration, and the practice continues to this day.

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