The 1956 Melbourne games deserve on one count already a special and curious niche in Olympic history. Not since 1936 have the Games opened against such a backdrop of international tension, and yet not in two decades have they begun in such gay harmony and with such a relative absence of the kind of incidents too often associated with important international sporting competition.
War talk was on most tongues as 70,000 athletes, officials and spectators poured into Melbourne a fortnight ago—so much so, that many wondered if the Games might be canceled or ruined. Avery Brundage set his face firmly against any such notion. Never given to the oversubtle phrase, he bluntly expressed the opinion that "if we held up the Games every time the politicians made a mess of things we would never have them." That was an oversimplification, but it is a fact that the athletes as well as those enjoying their efforts have so far been notably successful in dissociating their minds from the dangers which plague the universe. That may be an ostrichlike attitude, of course, in which case I can only report that it is very pleasant in the sand down here.
Naturally there was and remains the drama of the Hungarian team. The Hungarian athletes feel keenly their country's martyrdom. They are happier than when they arrived because by now most of them have heard that their families at home are safe, and it is already clear they are going to make a more than honorable showing at the Games. Some of the more excitable of the many Hungarian refugees in Australia would have liked their countrymen to have staged some political demonstration. There was even a plan advanced to sabotage the Russian entry into the arena. On opening day a member of the Hungarian delegation was supposed to hide in an aisle with a placard marked "Murderers" under his sweat shirt which he was to brandish as he rushed on the field ahead of the Russians. But the majority of the Hungarian athletes were strongly opposed to any such gesture. Apart from the fact that it could have caused a Soviet withdrawal from Melbourne and wrecked the Games, it would have been an illogical act. Once the Hungarians decided to go ahead and compete in the Olympics it would have been silly to have flouted the Olympic rules. It will be a different matter once the Games are over. The athletes will then be individuals on free soil. Estimates (by nonathletic Hungarians) of the number of Hungarian athletes who will not want to go home range between a quarter and two thirds of the entire Olympic delegation.
Aside from the Hungarian drama, though, sweetness and light are rampant. Soviet officials and athletes are friendlier than they have ever been since the war. Up to, and including, the last winter Games at Cortina, the Russians have been unsmiling and inaccessible. Here they are as helpful and charming to interviewers as they are to other competitors. However, the major contribution to the gaiety which surrounds this Olympiad has been made by the Australians themselves. This unaffected nation has thrown itself heart and soul into the Games. Small irritations over flaws in organization on opening day—hammers were still clattering in the stands and a few hours before the first basketball game press tickets had still not been distributed—evaporated in the warmth of Australian kindliness and enthusiasm.
December 3, 1956
Every night, tens of thousands of good-natured Aussies clog Collins and Bourke streets, Melbourne main drags, in the hope of catching sight of some Olympic dignitary or athlete. Hundreds more spend all day outside the jealously guarded Olympic Village, ready to pounce on anyone who looks as though he might be willing to sign an autograph. The garish tinsel and colored lights which decorate the Olympic city send the local columnists into transports of admiration. Every foreigner, and every American in particular, is made to feel like a GI in a liberated country, and he finds it hard to stay indignant about anything which doesn't work too smoothly.
Melbourne society, self-consciously "Olde Englishe" in contrast to the man in the street who rarely forgets he is still in a pioneering country, is tremendously worked up over royalty in the city. If a hostess cannot get the Duke of Edinburgh, who opened the Games, to dinner, she can at least aim at Prince Axel and Princess Margrethe of Denmark or at Princess Josephine-Charlotte of Luxembourg, who are here to watch the sport, or even at Prince Bira of Thailand, who represents his country in the yachting competition. As the Games started the staid Melbourne Age reported the city as "at fever pitch." Other papers were at pains to demonstrate that everything was being laid on for visitors. Melbourne, one paper reported gravely, had blondes who "can say yes in 14 languages." The curious local drinking laws which close saloons at 6 p.m. have been harder to explain. One result of these laws is that Australians carry bottles of beer around with them when they go out at night, and one result of this is that the crash of breaking beer bottles is the inevitable accompaniment to almost any Australian sporting event. It is, in fact, almost as characteristic a national anthem as God Save the Queen. After all, there is no point in stuffing one's pockets with empty beer bottles, and if the performers are not so bad as to merit having the bottles thrown at them, what can one do but flight the glass to the floor?
Betting is another Australian mania very inadequately offset by a law which forbids even horse racing papers to publish the morning line. At a pre-Olympic cycling meet on the outskirts of Melbourne last week it was no surprise to find "Honest George" and other bookies with their boards set up, briskly laying odds against American, British and Italian cyclists. What Mr. Brundage would think of an Olympic cyclist who allows himself to be bet on or against, I shudder to think.
The imagination of the nation's youth has been inflamed by the Games and appropriately by its symbol, the torch. The torchbearer has temporarily eclipsed Davy Crockett as the hero of the day, and the countryside is swarming with kids loping along dramatically and waving homemade torches. When the real torch approached Sydney, and was being awaited by a municipal delegation and a large crowd, a student in blue slacks and a white shirt forestalled the genuine runner and clambered up the steps of the city hall with a torch which he thrust into the hand of the mayor, who bowed and got well launched into his speech before he discovered he was holding a flaming tin can mounted on an old chair leg which was still wet with silver paint.
The opening ceremonies, watched by 103,000 fans sweltering in shirt sleeves and red- and green-visored caps, followed the prescribed and familiar Olympic pattern. The Duke of Edinburgh got a cordial but hardly enthusiastic reception when he arrived for the formal opening. For nearly two hours massed military bands entertained the patient fans who had to listen to Waltzing Matilda four times. Luckily it's a good tune. Of all the delegations the biggest roar was reserved for the Aussies, but others applauded with particular warmth were the U.S., Great Britain, New Zealand and Hungary. Only half of the Hungarians wore uniforms. This was because they had all ordered new ones in Melbourne without the Communist badge to which they had previously objected in their flag. As only some could be fitted on time, the others wore civilian clothes.
The traditional ceremonies seemed long to some. As the sultry sun sank over the great bowl of the Melbourne cricket grounds, boys holding signs bearing the names of the nations in the middle of the field began to keel over. The fainting was contagious and ambulance men were soon wildly chasing hither and thither. A soldier holding the Olympic flag as it was about to be hoisted passed out abruptly. The acme of incongruity seemed to have been reached when Russia's Galina Zybina, champion shotputter and reputedly "the strongest woman in the world," also collapsed. None of this interrupted the crowd's continuous cheering, and while it was all going on three elderly British gentlemen were playing bowls on the Melbourne Cricket Club's green next to the arena. They were reportedly only slightly disturbed by the noise. That night the Olympic Games got off to an official start with a basketball game at the Exhibition Building, a small stadium with a tin roof which viciously conserves the day's heat. To the music of disintegrating beer bottles, Formosa China registered a mild upset over Korea.
The track and field events opened quietly at the main stadium on the first day of the Games proper. Officials in blue jackets and light panama hats marched to and from their posts with precision and in serried ranks, giving the arena the faint aspect of a military camp. The previous day's heat had given way to bitter cold as the women began to qualify for the discus throw and the men for the high jump. Within an hour the first Olympic competitor had been eliminated, a tubby, fair German girl in the discus event. She promptly burst into tears. It was nice to see the traditions being thus respected.
In these first days of the Olympic Games, described in accompanying dispatches from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED experts, certain personalities have already made an indelible mark on public awareness, either in winning or losing. They include two Americans, the sprinter Ira Murchison, who delights crowds with his bouncy warmups and broad smiles before races, and the basketball player Bill Russell, who is a phenomenon entirely new to the Southern Hemisphere. Also old favorites such as Emil Zàtopek, who stirred great memories as he waved to the crowd while marching round the stadium, or John Landy, who read the Olympic Oath on behalf of all the athletes and upon whose performance in the 1,500-meter the whole of Australia is waiting with bated breath.
These first days also have graciously given us some sharply etched pictures of valid sporting moments which will endure as long as those who witnessed them can recall their particular glimpses of the ever new beauty of sport. For instance, the picture of an unknown Czech girl, Olga Fikotovà, a 24-year-old medical student who less than two years ago abandoned basketball for discus throwing, beating out the heavily favored Soviet women to win the Games' first track and field gold medal—a comely lass in a competition generally peopled by ungainly women; the picture of American youth running so much faster over short distances than the rest of the world that the spectacle became almost monotonous; the picture, above all, of a Russian sailor with a mop of fair hair, Vladimir Kuts by name, running the 10,000-meter race, running in front, running so grimly that he ground opposition beneath his spikes, running so that all marveled at the strength and determination with which his Creator had endowed this human frame; and the picture of the whole stadium rising to acclaim him with an emotion which transcended every kind of worldly barrier.