The Melbourne 1956 Games was the first time Australia hosted the Olympics. In many ways, it was the Games that took the Olympics to the world. It was the first Games held outside of Europe or the United States, the first Games held in the southern hemisphere, the first Games where live television broadcasts captured the public’s imagination, and the first Games in which all the athletes walked together as one in the Closing Ceremony. This change to procedure had been suggested to organisers by an Australian schoolboy, John Ian Wing, and remains a much-loved tradition of togetherness and friendship.
The Melbourne Olympics also heralded the arrival of Australia as a real sporting force at the Olympics, with stars such as swimmers Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose and sprinters Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland helping Australia rise to third on the medal table.
Australia at these Games
Australia’s team at the 1956 Olympics was a record-breaking crew that remains one of the greatest collections of athletic talent ever to compete under the Australian flag. With 325 athletes participating, including 46 women, the team was almost equal to the combined total of athletes Australia had sent to the previous 12 Olympics. Hence, it was remarkable for both quality and quantity, and its third place on the overall medal table with 35 medals (13 gold, 8 silver, 14 bronze), remains the highest place ever achieved by an Australian team.
Rower Merv Wood, competing at his fourth Olympics, was again chosen to carry the Australian flag in the Opening Ceremony. He remains the only person ever to twice receive this honour. Wood added a bronze medal to his Olympic collection in the double sculls with Murray Riley.
Australia’s Games got off to a flying start on the track thanks to the brilliant performances by our female sprinters (unlike in recent Olympics, athletics was held before swimming in 1956). ‘Golden Girl’ Betty Cuthbert emerged as the star of Melbourne, winning the 100m and 200m sprint double, and anchoring the 4x100m relay team as it won the gold medal. Cuthbert was the only Australian woman to win three gold medals at a Games until swimmer Shane Gould in 1972. Shirley Strickland won two gold medals at her final Games in the 80m hurdles and the 4x100m relay, ending her career as one of Australia’s greatest Olympic medallists with three gold, one silver and three bronze medals. Among other track medallists were John Landy in the men’s 1500m (bronze) and Hec Hogan in the men’s 100m (bronze). For Landy, one of the most storied names in Australian athletics, it would be his only Olympic medal.
But it was in the pool that Australia really excelled. Melbourne saw the Olympic debut of two of the Games’ true legends, Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose. Fraser won gold medals in the 100m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle and a silver in the 400m freestyle, while Rose achieved a golden treble with victories in the 400m freestyle, 1500m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle. Adding to the Aussie aura of excellence was dual gold medallist Lorraine Crapp, winner of the 400m freestyle and the 4x100m freestyle relay; David Theile, the champion of the 100m backstroke; and 100m freestyle winner Jon Henricks.
In cycling, Ian Browne and Anthony Marchant won the 2000m tandem, an event that Australia also won at the 1952 Olympics. Australia enjoyed its first medal successes in sailing (yachting) and canoe/kayak. In sailing, Rolly Tasker and John Scott won a silver medal in the 12 square metre class and Doug Buxton, Dev Mytton and Alex ‘Jock’ Sturrock combined for a bronze medal in the 5.5m class. Kayakers Dennis Green and Wally Brown won a bronze in the exhausting K2 10,000m. Green would later become the first Australian to compete at five Olympics.
The home Games allowed Australia to make its Olympic debut in a number of sports, including team sports such as basketball and football. It would be 40 years before Australia again had such a large contingent of athletes competing at a Games.