November second was an eventful day. In Gaza the Israelis were mopping up around Jebel Muntar; on Cyprus the RAF flew away to crater Egyptian airfields; Russian tanks were moving west again to the Danube. At 9:30 a.m. on this day, near Pyrgos, Greece, in the lee of a low hill sacred to the old god Cronus, a 47-year-old physicist named Salteris G. Peristerakis set up a parabolic reflector bought with World War I reparations, and held a torch in its hot spot of reflected light. Peristerakis was there in the ruins and weeds of ancient Olympia to gather the flame which will, on Nov. 22 at Melbourne, Australia, open the Games of the 16th Olympiad of the modern era.
This is an article from the Nov. 19, 1956 issue
Peristerakis worked alone. No one was permitted to watch, because the pagan god Zeus and not Peristerakis is supposed to kindle each Olympic flame. After a moment the torch flared, and Peristerakis carried the flame from the stadium ruins, where runners started it on its first 217-mile leg to a waiting plane. At Athens the flame was trimmed low in a miner's lamp and put aboard an Australian airliner bound south for Cairo. But bombers were in the lanes to Cairo, so the plane shifted east to Istanbul and picked its way over neutral lands to Karachi, Calcutta and Singapore. Indonesians refused to service this plane of the British Empire, so it overflew Djakarta to Darwin. Here, the flame was hung over the empty bay of a Canberra jet (of the sort bombing Cairo). At Cairns, 2,750 miles from Melbourne, runners took the flame again. Constantine Verevis, a Greek-Australian, handed the torch to an aborigine named Anthony Mark, who used to run mail through the bush, swimming three rivers, and is accustomed to such things.
Two hundred miles a day the flame moved south, through cane fields and scrub eucalyptus, past the strange nubs which the Discoverer Cook called the Glasshouse Mountains, past the surf at Coolangatta, through Sydney and the maze of Canberra's concentric streets. This week the torch will be passing from hand to hand, through the town of Cootamundra to Wagga Wagga and on to Wangaratta. A 41-year-old lawyer, Finlay McNab, will pass the torch to a trucker, Beverly Scott, who will run a mile and pass it to a diamond setter, Peter Mahardy. This is the first torch to burn south of the equator—first time down under, where the sun leans to the north and big-billed kookaburras meet the expanding day with crazy laughs. The torch, the symbol of the Olympic idea, has traveled its farthest and now faces its severest test.
Many Olympians, caught like the torch in world discord, arrived late, but more than 3,500 are already on hand. As the planeloads landed last week, on a practice infield Adolfo Consolini shed his blue sweatshirt lettered "Italia." Consolini of Italy is what the old Greeks called a discobulus—a. discus thrower. The classic Greek discuses of bronze and stone varied in size and weight. Consolini's discus measures an exact 8‚Öù inches across and is 1¾ inches thick. Its face and edge must, by the rules, be shaped just so, and it must weigh four pounds 6.4 ounces. The discus now is a very uniform but still a very useless artifact. No one knows its origin, but it probably did not evolve from a weapon. It is a poor thing to throw, tending to veer and wobble in flight; it does not even roll well. Consolini first threw the discus as a Youth of the Fascist Lictor. He broke the world record while in Mussolini's navy; as a civilian he won the 1948 Olympic discus title. Now, at 39, he is back trying to win what he has already won. Why?
It is, Consolini reckons, to make up somehow for something he missed. Sixteen years ago he was primed for the 1940 Olympics, which were scheduled for Tokyo, transferred to Helsinki and canceled by war. "The Tokyo Olympics," Consolini says, "I dream of them by night. That would have been my best moment. I was only 23. I trained without effort. I have hopes, but new throwers have grown up. I undergo severe training, but my trouble is not training. It's age." Consolini grips the discus for the first of 40 practice throws. The discus hits about 175 feet out—good enough for the medal at London, but not enough to beat the American veteran, Fortune Gordien, or Grigalka of Russia, or this new big man, Oerter, from the central part of America called Kansas.
The Olympic medal which Consolini, Gordien, Grigalka and Oerter seek is in itself no treasure. An Olympic medal, in fact, is not gold but gold plate and worth $5.62. Assembling these discus throwers and all the 4,500 Olympians of 69 nations and 17 sports is expensive. This Olympics will cost Australia about $20 million and the guest nations at least $10 million. At times it hardly seemed worth so much. In the past two years there were arguments whether Australia would get ready. The holy war of amateurism erupted again here and there, and the Olympic torch was brandished recklessly. When words failed in the heat of any argument, it became almost a pastime for partisans to throw a brick at the solid, resolute frame of the International President, Avery Brundage (most of these bricks shattered on impact).
It now seems to have happened suddenly, but the stadiums and Olympic Village are ready. The Australians took great pains. There is a jet-plane motor ready to dry rain from the track, the best Swiss watches to clock runners, for the fencers the latest in electrical foils from Italy. In the village there are 770 oversize beds for Olympians taller than 6 feet 2 and 45 superbeds for the 6½-footers. In the village mess halls Australia seated nations according to their stomachs and not their politics: Scandinavians together, Latin-Americans together, Asians together, Britons with Americans, and Russians with eastern Europeans. There are turkeys in store for America on Thanksgiving Day, fish cakes for Japan, round sponge cakes for Thailand, and water-lily-seed soup for two Chinas. When tuned to peak, an athlete's body is not as adaptable to change as his mind, and some countries took precautions of their own. The U.S. brought its own water, and the Hungarians shipped ahead tinned goose liver and enough paprika to blow the mouth off a whale.
The first Olympians in the village were two Malayan clay-pigeon shooters, who came Oct. 16. In the next two weeks, as Europe boiled in war, Olympians of 13 countries moved in. At the official opening of the village, Oct. 29, Australian Corporal Brian Agney in error ran up the Communist Chinese flag over Chinese Nationals. "It is inexcusable," a Chinese Nationalist cried. "We will protest."
"I didn't know the difference in the flags," Corporal Agney apologized, "but I certainly do now." A week after Nationalist China took umbrage, Red China withdrew in protest over the very presence of Nationalist China. After Red China withdrew, the East Germans and West Germans arrived as a single team, proving that it is possible to leave politics behind.
On Nov. 6, The Netherlands, a land understandably sensitive to the tread of heavy foreign feet, withdrew out of sympathy for beleaguered Hungary. The black Dutch pansies still bloom in the flower beds of the Olympic Village, but the wonderful little Dutch girls have been pulled out of the swimming pool. Then Spain quit. Iraq and Lebanon quit in protest against Britain. "They used to stop fighting to stage the Games," President Brundage commented. "Now we stop the Games to continue our wars."
The chancellor of the International Committee, Otto Mayer, begged for a moratorium so that the Hungarian team could get to the Games. Three of her Olympians were killed, but the rest of Hungary's team came out during a cease-fire.
In plain, dry, simple words the charter of the Olympics provides for amateur competition without discrimination against any country or person. Under the rules some sports are compulsory. There must be track, swimming, rowing, gymnastics, equestrian competition, cycling, weight lifting, yachting and—note this—all the combative sports: pentathlon, boxing, wrestling, fencing and shooting. Nine sports are optional, and five of these, soccer, water polo, hockey, canoeing, and basketball, are on the Melbourne agenda. The rules also state that Games must be held to celebrate each four-year Olympiad. Numerically, this is the 16th Olympiad, but only the 13th time men have gathered to celebrate. In 1916, 1940 and 1944 the world was so deep in war no one came to throw the discus, and the Olympics for those years stand in the records as the Games that might have been.
National rivalry is the bugbear of the Olympics. It disturbs the athletes little but gives the world fits at times. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded for first, second and third at the Games, and it is natural for anyone to want to know who wins what in each event in every sport. It is possible to add performances in gymnastics, the hop, step and jump and 1,000-meter canoeing in a single point score, but the grand total is meaningless, and the whole pursuit as futile as comparing the throwing arms of Otto Graham and Robin Roberts.
There are, without question, national rivalries in the Olympics. As the detailed reports farther along in this magazine show, there are rivalries of an almost chaotic variety—old rivalries, new rivalries, global, regional, personal rivalries. In many finals at Melbourne, again, the toughest fight will be teammate against teammate.
Among the coaches of the Olympic world, national identity dissolves into almost nothing. Coaches are forever aiding the enemy. Smiling broadly at trackside in Melbourne stands Joe Yancey, coach of the New York Pioneer Club. One of the Pioneers, Andy Stanfield, is defending Olympic champion in the 200-meter dash, but Yancey has come to Melbourne to coach a new, green squad of Jamaican runners who hope to take medals away from the U.S. as the great Jamaican veterans did at the 1948 and 1952 Games. The Austrian track genius Franz Stampfl has been coaching Australia's runners since August of last year and mailing out tape-recorded advice to running disciples, such as Chris Chataway, in Great Britain. The Italian water-polo coach, scheming to upset the favored Hungarians this year with their own style of play, is Band√Ø Zólyomi of Hungary. The American fencers will be coached by an old Hungarian saber-man, Lajos Csiszar.
Among the American fencers on the mats in Melbourne there is one who views the Games with unrivaled perspective. He is Dr. Norman Armitage, a fit, 49-year-old saberman whose mustache and face are more familiar in industry than in sport. He is a vice-president of the Deering-Milliken Corporation and the most durable symbol of the Olympics. He first competed as an Olympian at Amsterdam in 1928, had his best year in London in '48, winning 19 of 23 bouts and a bronze medal. Melbourne will be his sixth Olympic competition. Because he lives now in Pendleton, S.C., where no one fences, Armitage has prepared for the last two Games by running 10 miles a week and lunging against imaginary opponents in the parish of the Episcopal church. "There certainly always has been national rivalry in fencing," Dr. Armitage reports, "and it should be. We're all imbued with it. It's the same thing we get in colleges here. At all the Olympics I haven't made anything but friends; why, some old friends are coming back now as officials."
Sitting on the infield grass, Làszló Tàbori, the leather worker from Budapest, and Istvàn Rózsav√∂lgyi, the Hungarian army captain, ponder what sort of races there will be at 1,500 and 5,000 meters. What will the Russian 10,000-meter-man Kuts be worth in the shorter, faster 5,000? John Landy, the man intrigued by the tactics of running duels—what threat will Landy be now suddenly recovered from his tendon trouble? Chris Chat-away and that persistent bogey, Gordon Pirie—will they pull the British trick, let their rivals play donkey runner, then make a race of it in the last 300 meters?
As he jogs past, lanky Somnerg Srisombati, wearing the white elephant of Thailand on his jacket, has no such complicated worries. Srisombati has only a vague sense of tactics. He is a runner because he has been running and running over the monastery grounds back at Wat Kanchanaram. He ran 1,500 meters in four minutes 19 seconds, and Thailand felt that was good enough. The sailboat of Prince Bira-bongse Bhanubhand of Thailand does have a chance in the sailing competition on Port Phillip Bay, but Runner Srisombati's chance against the master milers is truly dim. Srisombati knows this, but he adds, "An upcountry boy like me serves to stimulate interest in international sport."
There has been political drumbeating at earlier Olympic Games, and tourist-minded citizens playing host sometimes have emphasized spectacle more than competition. As Iraq and The Netherlands withdrew, the Games ran the risk of becoming a court for the aggrieved, as if there was no longer room at United Nations for the differences of the world. The walls of the Olympic stadium were not intended either for political billboards or for the placards of the righteous.
Last April, an old discus thrower in the U.S. Senate—which has no Olympic authority—urged that America do everything possible to ban Russia from the Olympics. An American rowing coach warned a church group that a Russian Olympic victory would "endanger the peace of the world."
It has been said that this Olympics is a great rivalry of the U.S. and Russia. Now, as the Games begin, any man can survey the panorama of competition between great performers from many countries and decide for
himself that the Games are something more than any two countries can make—or unmake. Anyone still obsessed with the idea that these Games should be, must be, a duel of Russia and the U.S. should put blinders on, ignore the general scene and concentrate on the hammer throw. There in the hammer circle is a corking battle of Americans and Russians who have been trading the world record across the Curtain for almost half a year. Cliff Blair of the U.S. took the record away from Mikhail Krivonosov of Russia. Krivonosov took it back. Hal Connolly beat Krivonosov, Krivonosov beat Connolly, and Connolly beat Krivonosov. Quite a rivalry, but Cliff Blair shrugs it off: "In the hammer, sooner or later, everybody beats everybody."
At 4:32 p.m., Nov. 22, the last torch-bearer, a veteran with considerable feeling for the joy of running, will carry the flame into the stadium. He has a world-famous name, but, unlike the names of Anthony Mark, Peter Ma-hardy, Finlay McNab and all 3,000 runners who have advanced the torch, his by tradition must be kept secret until the moment arrives. The Duke of Edinburgh will say, "I declare open the Olympic Games of 1956, celebrating the 16th Olympiad of the modern era." Five thousand pigeons—not doves of peace, but pigeons—will flutter into the sky.
Meanwhile at the practice circle, the old discus thrower Adolfo Consolini wipes the sweat out of the creases in his forehead, dries his hands and makes the last of 40 practice throws. He has a chance against Gordien of the U.S. and Grigalka of Russia, to compensate for something he feels he missed 16 years ago. But already this time something is missing. Consolini will not have the chance to beat the European record holder, Karel Merta. Record holder Merta was caught deliberately using a lighter discus in competition, and was dropped from the lists. This insistence that a man cannot tamper with the common denominator but wins by improving himself makes the Olympic stadium a unique meeting place. Olympians have come 12,000 miles because of common values, not differences, and this perhaps explains why, during these Games, there can be a moratorium at least in the minds of men.