Australia sent one of its finest Olympic teams to the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. A contingent of 84 competitors including ten women flew to Finland under the management of William T.J Uren, chairman of the Victorian Olympic Council. The support and camaraderie that developed among the athletes in the lead up to and during the Games laid the foundation for a strong network that still exists today called the Kapyla Club.
In March 1952, the Australian Olympic Federation announced the team to travel to Helsinki, sparking issues of sexism among the sports and athletes. It boiled down to the halving of the women’s relay team. The Australian Women’s Athletic Union had delivered one its finest women’s 4 x 100m relay squads to the AOF. Comprised of Marjorie Jackson, Shirley Stickland, Verna Johnston and Winsome Cripps, the squad were considered an excellent prospect to medal. The AOF however relegated two of the athletes to a lower rank than several men, none of whom were seriously considered a medal chance.
The women were given the opportunity to raise their own fares to travel to Helsinki however there was a catch. People in ranks above them had to have had their fare paid before their spot was guaranteed. And so the Western Australian Athletic Association, who raised funds to send Verna Johnston to the Olympics, also assisted in raising funds for Don Keane, the walker graded above her.
For the rest of the team there were significant funding issues with the cost of travel to Helsinki over £750. Many of the athletes raised their own money to fund transport to the Games. The rowing eight regularly conducted coin collections at GPS regattas and a fundraising police concert was held at the Sydney Town Hall. Over one hundred and fifty people crammed into the sold out event, having been “encouraged” to purchase their tickets by the police.
The fundraising efforts instilled in the athletes a strong sense of responsibility to their nation and determination for success. They were committed to do their very best for the people that had so generously given their money and those that had worked tirelessly to find it.
The journey to Helsinki was long and exhaustive however extremely exciting for many of the athletes who had never been so far away from home. The rowing eight flew in the Super Constellation, the most modern aeroplane of its time. It took the team over five days to reach their final destination, departing from Sydney and touching down in Darwin, Jakarta, Singapore, Karachi, Calcutta, Bahrain, Beirut, Rome and finally London where they were to train prior to the Olympics.
The team uniform was simple and consisted of limited garments. Each athlete was given a marching uniform and a competition uniform as well as a tracksuit. The marching uniform was comprised of cream pants, cream shirt, green tie, green jacket with the Australian coat of arms sewed on the pocket and a straw hat. An example of one of the sports competition uniforms was the white Bonds singlet with the Australian coat of arms sewed onto the front and thick woollen shorts for the rowing eight. It was said that if the shorts showed up you were carrying your lunch in them.
For the first time since the start of the Cold War, the combatants lined up against each other. Both sides sought to demonstrate the virtues of the ideologies they embraced through their sporting success. The athlete’s village was located in a suburb of Helsinki called Kapyla, from which the name of the Club takes its name. The Russians refused to live with other nations displaying a clear breach of the Olympic spirit. The village was split into three; for the women, the Russians and the remaining athletes. The buildings still exist today and the Finnish proudly direct you to the location. The pool and stadium are also still there and used to this day by the locals.
The general mood of the Cold War did not offer a harmonious outlook for the Helsinki Games. Paradoxically they turned out to be as successful in mood and in performance as any before them, brimming with goodwill, superior organisation and generous crowds. For Australia, the athletes finished the Games with the nation’s richest yield of medals, six gold, two silver and three bronze.
In athletics Marjorie Jackson produced magnificent victories in the 100m and 200m, equalling the world record of 11.5 seconds in the 100m. Shirley Strickland won the 80m hurdles, creating a new world record of 10.9 seconds in the final.
Young Australian athletes, such as John Landy, Les Perry and Don Macmillan were inspired by the Czech Emil Zatopek, winner of the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon. He gave them advice about his training schedules and impressed the young John Treloar, who recorded Australia’s best men’s performance on the track in Helsinki when he placed 6th in the 100m final.
Claude Smeal, who had travelled from a Korean battlefield to compete at the Games, ran a credible 45th in a field of 66 in the marathon, which was won by Zatopek. Smeal was one of the most remarkable athletes that had converged on Helsinki, exemplifying the spirit of participation and not just winning.
The cyclist Russel Mockridge was the last member of the team to reach Helsinki, arriving six days after the Games had begun and two days before his competitions were due to start. His late arrival was a result of an argument with the AOF, in which he had refused to sign a bond pledging to remain an amateur for two years after the Games.
Luckily the issue was resolved, as Mockridge claimed two gold medals in one afternoon. He won the 1000m time trial, with an Olympic record of 1min 1.1sec and the 2000m tandem with Lionel Cox. This partnership was particularly remarkable in that the two men were utterly different in background and personality. They had not shared much experience before, certainly not on a tandem of which Cox had never even been on.
Australia’s 6th gold medal went to breaststroke swimmer John Davies, who won the 200m in Olympic record with a time of 2:34.4. Rex Aubrey’s sixth in the 100m freestyle final was the next best Australian swimming performance. He swam a fantastic 57.8 seconds in the semi-final.
Merv Wood, the Australian flag bearer, hampered by a nagging injury and the use of a borrowed boat, rowed with great courage to win a silver medal in the single scull. The rowing eight demonstrated that it was a serious force in world eights rowing, winning the bronze medal.
Along with great sporting feats, Australian larrikinism also featured among the team. The weightlifters and the boxers, renowned for not getting on, were constantly playing pranks on each other. It was known that one of the weightlifters used to drink a litre of milk before he went to bed. One night the boxers slipped some paraffin oil into his milk. He drank it unknowingly and spent the rest of the night on the toilet.
The Australian fencers, who trained in Paris were considered “trendy” among the team. This was partly due to an Errol Flynn look-a-like moustache which one of them ostentatiously displayed. A few of the more non fuss athletes decided to remove this display of vanity, quickly and painlessly eliminating it one night with a razor.
The great achievements, the “have a go” mentality and the camaraderie with a touch of larrikinism that existed among the 1952 Australia team exemplified the Olympic spirit. These values have lived among the team ever since, evident in the way they all meet at their annual reunion, held as closely as possible to the date of the opening ceremony in July 1952.
The first one took place in 1953 at the Finnish Ligation in the Eastern Suburbs. Originally only men were permitted to attend, however this changed to include women and athletes partners as time progressed. The venue changed and moved to the Sebel Townhouse in Kings Cross and then to the Sydney Rowing Club, where the 50 year reunion took place in 2002. The importance of the Club was demonstrated when two extraordinary members of the team, the Governor of Victoria, John Landy and Governor of South Australia, Marjorie Jackson both attended.
The office bearers of the Kapyla Club are Chairman John Treloar AM, Justice Mervyn David Finlay QC, Raymond Smee AM, Doug Laing, Nimrod Greenwood and Ernest Chapman OAM. They too epitomise the spirit of the Olympic Games and the values of this special Club. In conversations with Ernest Chapman he is always heard to rely to the question – “How are you"” with the phrase “Every day is a bonus”.