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#OlympicHistory – When Olympics went Down Under for the First Time

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Hungarian player Ervin Zádor after the Water Polo match against USSR

“In ancient days, nations stopped wars to compete in the Games; nowadays we stop our Olympics to continue our wars.” – Avery Brundage, a former IOC President made this remark when he was at the helm of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during the 1956 Summer Olympics.

Cold war was in the air and Soviet Union had made a return to the Olympics (1952) after a long absence. The great wars might have been a thing of the past, in the 1950s countries were busy consolidating their positions for their own sake. The common meeting point was the Olympics, where even the IOC were helpless at times to the pressures exerted by the selfish politics.

 In 1949, Melbourne, Australia won the bid to host the 1956 Summer Olympics by a single vote. Many doubters were quick to point Australia being a Southern Hemisphere country, would hamper athlete’s preparations because of the seasonal changes. An athlete (from Northern Hemisphere) had to be in a state of peak performance when normally they do not compete (during months of November and December). Well, it didn’t occur to them that athletes from Southern Hemisphere did participate during their off-season!

The preparations leading up to the Games were sluggish as reported by many of the leading news agency.  Much to the surprise of the doubters, the organisers were prepared when the Games began in November, 1956. However, there was a hurdle with the equestrian events.

The Australian Government required a six-month quarantine for the horses before they were admitted into the country. This law put the equestrian events and the IOC into a quandary. Should IOC cancel the equestrian events? or go against the Olympic charter that mandated all the events must be held in the same country?

The latter option was selected and the equestrian events were shifted to Stockholm, Sweden in the month of June, five months before the opening ceremony.

The aforementioned incident was just the tip in the iceberg, although a sporting incident. IOC’s stance to not interfere in political matters reduced them to a sorry state. There was a disagreement over the Suez Canal, which took Egypt, Israel into a battle over the Canal’s legitimate owners. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq withdrew from the Olympics.

Then, there was Soviet’s tussle with Hungary. In protest, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland withdrew their athletes from the Olympics. Republic of China withdrew from the Olympics after they saw Taiwan’s flag at the Olympic village, giving them a impression that China was split.

“We left Hungary to go to Australia,” said Hungarian’s swimmer Eva Székely, “during the first few days of the revolt, when it looked as if Hungary would be free. When we arrived in Melbourne we learned that the Russians had come into power.”

Many Hungarian athletes refused to participate under the Soviet banner at the Olympics. They fought and waved their free Hungary flag in the Olympic village. When the Communist flag was restored, a couple of Hungarian athletes climbed the flag pole and tore the flag down. Go back and read the first paragraph of this article.

Oh yes, in between all these events, there was Olympics. Putting political games aside, the 1956 Summer Olympics marked the first time, Soviet Union had reached the top of the medals tally, beating United States.

The year 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of the Melbourne Olympics – a lot has evolved since then for the better, though we as humans are still consolidating, and always will be.

Selected Quotes courtesy: The Olympic Story