The news from Cairo and Budapest and London and Tel Aviv is not stopping as planeload after planeload of athletes land at Melbourne's Essendon Airport to take part in the XVI Olympiad. The bitterness, the fierce schisms engendered by war in Hungary and war in Egypt have not been suddenly turned off—indeed, they have caused the withdrawal of half a dozen countries and have, in some minds, reduced the idealistic concept of the Olympiad to absurdity. But a vast part of the world clings, nevertheless, to the stubborn conviction that the Games should go on, that the ideal should be pursued, no matter what the stresses to which it was subjected, and in Australia this week thousands of young men and women are preparing—some of them with almost awesome restraint—to do so.
In Melbourne, a handsome and airy city on a bright blue bay, there were moments when it was easy to imagine that there were no troubled continents at all. Downtown streets bloomed with signs bearing the five-ring Olympic symbol. At the red-brick, paint-fresh (if mud-bordered) Olympic Village, rock 'n' roll blared nightly in the recreation hall, and youngsters from a score of countries jostled amiably, played cards, ping-pong and dominoes, or argued a burning mystery—the identity of a man in a green sweatsuit who inadvertently ran through a plate-glass door at the village postoffice and jogged away unscathed. The Russian soccer team, walking out on a practice field for its first workout, discovered that the oblong of turf had been preempted by Polish players—the two gangs of men ran toward each other and embraced.
To many a newly arrived athlete, the 1956 Games seemed little different than if they were being held under happier circumstances. The Olympics are bound, if only because of the tremendously talented U.S. runners, jumpers and weight men, and the big team from the U.S.S.R., to be the most spectacular ever held; the great stadium and its encircling cluster of cycling and training tracks, swimming stadium and soccer fields forms a most impressive site for the heroics of sport, and to youths from Canada, Sweden, Nigeria, the Philippines, Uruguay, Turkey, New Zealand, Italy, Chile, Norway and dozens of other countries the Melbourne Games are simply a stage on which it may be possible to savor high drama, hope for glory, and compete against the world's best.
But beneath the surface of good humor, correct behavior and vast peripheral excitement at Melbourne run deep eddies of anger and tragedy. The Olympic concept of sport—as a selfless competition of individuals, devoid of nationalism and dedicated to the glory of conflict rather than the glory of victory—has never been realized. No modern Olympiad, in fact, has not stirred up its hornet's nest of individual jealousies and indignation between nations. But there has never been an Olympiad so sorely beset by difficulty and by departure from the ideal as the Melbourne Games; neither has there ever been one in which men have struggled (most of them without being able to give any really logical explanation of their feelings) so hard against such odds to keep the Olympic flame alight and the form and substance of the Games alive. There has never, in a word, ever been anything quite like the arrival of the first contingent of Hungarian athletes at Melbourne.
Australia has thousands of "new" Hungarian settlers. They have followed the news of bloody revolt and bloody reprisal in their native land with deep emotion, and hundreds of them were on hand last week as the Hungarian athletes—who were taken to Czechoslovakia during the first lull in fighting and thence embarked for Australia—arrived at Essendon Airport. The waiting throngs carried armfuls of flowers and red, white and green Hungarian flags from which the Communist symbol was absent and to which black mourning streamers had been attached. As the first gray-uniformed athletes marched down a ramp from the French plane which had brought them to Australia the waiting crowd chanted, "Huj, Huj, Hajra!" (the Hungarian equivalent of hip, hip, hooray!), and then athletes and crowd together sang, many weeping almost uncontrollably, the ancient anthem of free Hungary, Isten Aid Meg a Magyart (God Bless Hungary).
A good many of the Hungarian team had fought in the streets during the first days of the revolt—but they had been so closely supervised in Communist-controlled Prague that none knew until they reached Australia of the new Russian attacks on their homeland. Shocked, horrified, defiant, they swore they would not compete in the Games if they were forced to do so under the flag of Red Hungary. But except for that reservation they were ready, they said, to do their best, and went off to their quarters (near those of athletes from France, Rumania and Colombia) in the Olympic Village as quietly as if no tanks rumbled in the autumn fields at home.
Other nations, other teams reacted differently in the heat of national animosities. Spain withdrew rather than contaminate its young men by contact with the Russians. So did Holland—and moved to turn its $25,000 Olympic fund over to Hungarian relief. Lebanon and Iraq withdrew to protect the invasion of Egypt. Red China withdrew out of spite for Nationalist China. The Swiss withdrew, reconsidered and re-entered.
It was obviously foolish to believe that the Olympic movement could truly "place itself above" politics and war in an imperfect world, but there was something sublime last week in the sight of men from scores of nations doing their best—and an amazing best at that—to try to place it there. The Russians, critics cried, were entered at Melbourne solely for purposes of propaganda. It seemed likely. But neither propaganda nor hypocrisy will win a medal at Melbourne for the Russians or anyone else. There will be no rewards for mediocrity. The nations, great and small, will compete together according to law and without martyrizing the weak. Who, in 1956, could say that this was not a triumph in itself, that good will and insistence on quality was less than admirable because it was confined to a quarter-mile track, that the Melbourne Olympics, because of the very tragedy amidst which they will be held, should not be considered the most memorable in history.
ROLL CALL OF THE OLYMPIC NATIONS
Athletes of 74 nations were expected in Melbourne. At week's end it appeared that those of all but five would be present.