In Melbourne, Australia, above the clutter of Flinders Street Railroad Station where 10 years ago many American soldiers met the Australian girls they married, today a 30-foot neon sign flashes warning of another invasion in 1956. "Stop," the sign asks, "are you an Olympic host? Look," the sign pleads, "20,000 beds are still needed."
For six years before this flashing reminder was put up, Olympic officials and devotees inside and outside Australia had been boiling with doubts whether anyone in Melbourne really wanted to play host to the 1956 Games. This summer, a mile and a half from the center of Melbourne the girders and tiers of three stadiums are rising. On the north edge of town boom cranes are swinging the prefabricated slabs of a 780-unit Olympic village into place. The doubts finally are being answered by the sweet clatter of construction as Melbourne gets ready.
Melbourne was first proposed for the job of Olympic host by some of its sports-minded civic leaders at the 1949 meeting of the International Olympic Committee. Australia had sent competitors at least 7,000 miles to every modern Olympiad in North America and Europe, Melbourne's supporters pointed out. Largely because of this fair argument, the international committeemen—most of them, anyway—were glad to pass the Olympic torch to Melbourne. The Aussies soon found that the big Olympic affair can be a harrowing experience for the host.
In five years Melbourne was forced to change the site of the main stadium five times, finally settling on the 80,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground, despite the protests of some cricket fathers that the sacred turf should not be torn up for track and field doings. The rowing site shifted from Lake Wendouree to Lake Learmonth and back to Wendouree and back again to Learmonth. The swimming pool site was changed three times and, despairing of this vacillation, the head of Melbourne's Olympic control committee, Arthur Coles, resigned. The International Cycling Union approved a 250-meter track, then insisted on a 333-meter track. The boxing arena burned down. Quarantine officers announced that no mounts for equestrian events could enter Australia without an impracticable 6-month quarantine, so these events were broken off the agenda and consigned to Stockholm, Sweden. In the face of Australia's housing shortage, the state of Victoria balked at the idea of wasting materials on a village for the athletes. The federal government refused to turn over military barracks since there would be no place to put the displaced military and civil servants. There were insinuations by the Victoria state government that the federal government were spoilers, and counter insinuations by the federals, and though politics never played the worst part, at times the city, state and federal governments were like Balkan states in a period of unrest.
Melbourne's harrowing times, actually, were not much worse than other Olympic hosts experienced, but Melbourne without doubt broke all records for getting off to a bad early start in a distinctive Australian way. As the grade school books say, Australia is a far and different land, where birds laugh, fish walk on water, and outsized frogs bark like motorcycles. The Australian people are part English, part Irish and very American. As Australia's present Interior Minister Wilfred Kent Hughes puts it—and he was educated in England, competed in the 1920 Games, married a New Jersey lady, served a hitch as a Japanese war prisoner and has suffered most of the past six years as Chairman of Melbourne's Olympic Organizing Committee: "We are the loving daughter of the Queen, married to Uncle Sam. We speak the Queen's English, the President's English and the 'Fair Dinkum' English." But in a pinch it is blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder Fair Dinkum that prevails, and an Australian pounces with equal vigor on politicians, Davis Cup players and himself.
HOWLS FROM DOWN UNDER
When Melbourne got the Games, the first howls came, Fair Dinkum, from local critics. Thinking of what Americans and Continental tourists would expect, the
Melbourne Daily Sun fired away: "A luxury hotel according to present Australian definition is one which gives the same level of service as a 60-year-old coffee palace in some minor European city." Only 500 of Melbourne's 8,000 top hotel rooms have connecting baths, and the harshest critics believed (judging Americans in part by American movies) no American would put up with darting down a hotel corridor swaddled in a towel. Helsinki, the 1952 host, has far less accommodations, but that point was seldom raised in all the clamor.
of the rival city of Sydney said about Melbourne: "The horror of Sunday in Melbourne—an awesome study in suspended animation. Life does not stand still in Melbourne, it falls down in a torpor." Melbourne has no paid entertainment on Sunday. Bars close all Sunday and early on week nights. Indeed, compared to Melbourne, present-day Boston and Philadelphia are as wide open as Sodom and Gomorrah. The desperation of a Texas American in Melbourne might be such, the
further speculated, that a waiter who removed a bottle at the hour when Melbourne bars turn into hollow pumpkins might well lose an arm.
At the peak of the flagrant knocking, the Australian lieutenant general, William Bridgeford, was busy as commander of the Commonwealth Forces in Korea. Jumping into the job of executive director of Melbourne's Olympics after Korea, the General, who is something of a Fair Dinkum talker himself, blasted back in defense of Melbourne: "A lot of bloody nonsense. Anybody who comes to Melbourne will have such a good time, he won't know whether it's Sunday or Monday." The General was mindful that in Melbourne, where there is a range of aquatic sports and more golf and tennis than in any American city of equal size, Americans manage to have a good time outside of bars. The General may also have had in mind that, though bars close, the law allows hotel guests to buy and drink anything at any hour.
The local knocking subsided, but not before leaving the outside world with the exaggerated impression that Melbourne was wallowing like a teak raft. Much of the foreign reaction was quite uncharitable. Australia's stringent horse quarantine could have been explained by almost any equestrian (it is easy to segregate horses, but not the insect vectors that might ruin Australia's livestock economy), but all the equestrian world got from Colonel Harry Llewellyn, leader of England's riders, was the bitter announcement that English horsemen might switch to ping-pong. Americans clucked at the reluctance of Australian cricketers to tear up their turf, though surely those who clucked would have had the same trouble persuading the New York Yankees to tear up all the sod in their outfield. Armand Massard, president of France's Olympic Committee, announced that he had always considered Australia a poor choice "thousands of miles from everywhere." Los Angeles boomed out, "We're an emergency landing field if Melbourne has trouble." There was always some American city circling like a dingo, eager to snatch the Games if Melbourne faltered.