1956 Melbourne Olympics: 1st Games in southern hemisphere

The Melbourne Olympics were already quite unique before they started. They were the first games held in the southern hemisphere, and ran from Nov. 22 to Dec. 8 to take in the Australian summer.

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And because of Australia’s strict quarantine regulations for animals, the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden, more than five months earlier — the first time events at one Olympics were held on another continent.

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, where hundreds of Hungarians were killed and thousands arrested, was responsible for one of the most unforgettable episodes of the games — the “Blood in the Water” water polo match between Hungary and the Soviets.

The pro-Hungarian crowd saw numerous fights between the players. Late in the match, Ervin Zador, who had scored two goals for Hungary, was hit by a Soviet player and climbed out of the pool with blood streaming from his head.

Spectators and Hungarian officials rushed toward the Russian team and police and security intervened, escorting the Soviet team from the pool. Hungary won 4-0 and went on to take the gold medal 2-1 over Yugoslavia. The match has since been the subject of several documentaries and films.

CLOSE CONTEST

Melbourne only won the race to host the games by one vote, 21-20 in the fourth round of balloting, over another southern hemisphere city, Buenos Aires, Argentina. There were 10 cities bidding. It was a far cry from the limited host choices these days as the costs of holding the games has become increasingly prohibitive. The other eight cities were Mexico City, Montreal and the American cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Detroit, which was the birthplace of Avery Brundage, who was overseeing his first games as IOC president at Melbourne.

PREGAMES PROBLEMS

The so-called “Friendly Games” were not without issues, the biggest were financial squabbles between Australia’s federal government and the state of Victoria. With a year to go, Brundage threatened to take the Olympics from Melbourne and hand them to Rome, the 1960 site, which Brundage said was far ahead of Melbourne in its preparations. But Melbourne got its act together and the Games of the 16th OIympiad were officially opened by Prince Phillip, husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. East Germany and West Germany had a combined team competing under a black, red and yellow flag with the Olympic rings.

HOME-OLYMPICS ADVANTAGE

Australians took advantage of the home crowd. Betty Cuthbert, dubbed the “Golden Girl” of the Games, won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter races and the 400-meter relay. Aussie swimmer Murray Rose won three golds, helping Australia finish third in the gold medal race with 13 — the Soviet Union led with 37 golds and the United States had 32. Aussie swimmer Dawn Fraser won the first of her three 100-meter freestyle gold medals in a row — the others followed in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo. She become the first of only three swimmers to win the same events over three Olympics. American runner Bobby Joe Morrow equaled Cuthbert’s performance, winning gold in the men’s 100, 200 and 4-x-100 relay; India's field hockey team won gold for the sixth consecutive time.

BOYCOTTS

While the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and 1984 Games in Los Angeles are remembered as heavily-boycotted events led by the United States and the Soviet Union, Melbourne also had its share of countries which didn’t attend. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted the event in protest at the Soviet Union’s intrusion into Hungary earlier that year, which resulted in nearly 50 Hungarian athletes remaining behind in Australia to seek asylum. China also didn’t attend because Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory, was allowed to compete as a separate country.

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