56 Since ’56 – The Crowd at Olympic Games

Ticket for athletics Melbourne Olympic Games

One of the mementos kept by Les to remember his day at the Melbourne Olympic Games.

The excitement and the roar of the crowd was the first thing that Les recalled as he told me about that day in 1956 when he watched the Olympics at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I was having an all too rare day with relations in a country town in the western district of Victoria and had been expecting a day of sharing photographs and family stories. I was not expecting to hear about a day at the Olympics.

When I asked Les about the day again a few months later he recounted the same scene – the feeling of being part of the crowd, rising out of their seats and giving full voice to a champion athlete, but he could not recall the details of the competition he saw.

I was hoping to hear Les talk about the feats of Betty Cuthbert who won a gold medal for Australia in the 200m sprint that day, or some anecdotes about what other athletes did, but it was the experience of being one of 100,000 people roaring with excitement which was the highlight of his day.  Dare I say it?  I was disappointed that he did not tell me what I thought would have been a more interesting story.

An article in today’s The Age made me rethink my response to Les’ account.  He would probably relate to the comments made by Greg Baum about the crowd last night at the London Olympics.  In Baum’s eyes the crowd was just as  important as the feats of Mohamad Farah and the Jamaican 4x100m relay team.  Baum said that last night he saw how “a crowd becomes a player, both in the sense of “actor” and “participant”.  “As at the greatest sporting events”, Baum remarked, “a trance was upon the stadium last night; no-one could bring themselves to leave, until security had to insist.”

How can two sporting events fifty-six years apart be compared?  I don’t think they can  but I have a suspicion that on that day in 1956 Les had a taste of Baum’s experience in London fifty-six years later.

Peter Wilson of London’s Daily Mirror reported on the 10,000 metre race held at the 1956 Olympic Games:

This was one of those intense human dramas which make six-figure crowds cram into stone bowls, pay more than they can afford, and more than is printed on the ticket, and forget their unpaid bills, their hum-drum lives, their domestic problems, and their own shortness of breath and longness of tooth as they identify themselves with the spiked heroes of the track.”

Is this what has been happening at the London Olympic Games?

There is a broader picture here.  Historians work at capturing the human experience and interpreting it for their contemporaries.  Les, Greg Baum and Peter Wilson all talked about the sound as well as the visual spectacle of the crowd.  Even with the assistance of television I didn’t get the sense that the crowd watching the Jamaican relay team behaved any differently to a crowd at any major world sporting fixture.  It was only Greg Baum’s writing that conveyed this to me.  The producers of the London Olympics television coverage dampened down the sound levels to those required by broadcasting requirements.  The cameras did not place me in the crowd, shoulder to shoulder with an excited mass of humanity.

I admire historians who tackle the aural aspect of history.  In my ‘to be read’ (TBR) pile I have a great book on the soundscape of slavery in the United States.  Written by Shane White and Graham White, I have found the first couple of chapters of The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons and Speecha fascinating account which demonstrates the importance of sound in people’s lives.

Context is everything in history.  Les had explained to me the context of his response to his day at the Melbourne Olympics.  He had lived in the country all his life  While he had attended many country athletics meets including the annual Stawell Gift, he had never been part of a crowd anywhere near the size of the 100,000 people that day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The story that Les told me about his experience of the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 has been a lesson for me in listening.  If someone says something is important to them, then I should consider how and why it is important to them, not discount it because their response is not the one I want to hear.  This is a critical faculty that all historians need to foster.

My Three Favourite Stories About the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

  • A Carlton Boy’s Big Idea‘ by Kate Bagnall – This is a wonderful account of how a Chinese-Australian youth came up with an idea for the closing ceremony of the Melbourne Olympic Games, an idea which has been adopted in every Olympic Games held since.
  • Stealthy Guardians of Melbourne’s Friendly Games‘ by John Silvester – This is a funny story of ‘security’ at the Melbourne Olympic Games.
  • Ervin Zador: Blood on the Water‘ by Mike Rowbottom and ‘Blood in the Water at the 1956 Olympics‘ by Miles Corwin – Politics is never far from sport and it was certainly the case at the Melbourne Olympics held at the height of the Cold War.  These two articles relate the story about he most famous water polo match ever – the ‘Blood on the Water’ match between Hungary and the Soviet Union.
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