Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 239 A’Beckett St ( cnr. William St opposite Flagstaff Gardens) Closes 4 June 2019 Open weekdays 10a.m-4.00 p.m. Gold coin donation.
The 1956 Melbourne Olympic games were promoted and remembered as ‘The Friendly Games’, but they were permeated by political currents that are perhaps most easily seen at a distance. Of course, 1956 was right in the midst of the Cold War, when communists were supposedly hiding under our beds and secret services on all sides were active. 1956 was a politically febrile time and several countries boycotted the games over global incidents: Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted in response to Israel’s invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis; and Netherlands, Cambodia, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted the games after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Communist China withdrew just two weeks out from the Games because Taiwan was attending.
Quite apart from any rivalry in the sporting arena, there was rivalry between the various secret services. Australia did not want Russia and its large contingent to boycott the games, and so America was asked not to send CIA. They did, of course, with the aim of encouraging defections to America, with all the attendant propaganda benefits. The Australian secret services were active too, keeping a close eye on the leftist groups here in Melbourne, and rather futilely using the Petrovs (who had at this stage defected to Australia) to identify various Russian political actors and spies.
But the political tension did spill over into the sporting fields as well, most particularly in the swimming pool in the Hungary vs. Soviet Union water polo teams. It was an ugly game, culminating in a Hungarian player leaving the pool with blood streaming from his face (making sure that the newspapers got good pictures) until the game was called early with a 4-0 Hungarian victory.
Given the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, American Cold War agents particularly targeted Hungarian athletes with blandishments to defect. There’s a curious cable sent from Melbourne to New York, talking about a VFL team touring America to play an exhibition match after the Games, but being reluctant to do so because they were being watched by fans and followers. Given that the VFL season was well and truly over, and the MCG filled to pussy’s bow with Olympic spectators, this might seem strange. But this is a coded telegram: the ‘Aussie footballers’ were in fact Hungarian athletes and the ‘fans and followers’ were the KGB minders. Many of the Hungarian defectors joined the American Freedom Tour, which travelled America under the sponsorship of Sports Illustrated Magazine: a real propaganda coup.
There’s the story of a romance between American hammer throw champion Hal Connolly and Czechoslovak discus throw champion, Olga Fikotová, and the defection of a female Ukrainian ship steward from the Russian team ship the Gruzia. These stories, which are featured in this exhibition, provide a narrative thread and a human interest to a topic which might otherwise be weighed down with diplomatic and clandestine machinations on the one hand, or sporting hoop-la on the other.
The exhibition, researched by Harry Blutstein who has published a book of the same name in 2017, is fairly print-heavy and thus takes a bit of attention. I first saw half of it in April but had to leave it half-way through because a talk I was attending was starting, then today a grizzling four-month old granddaughter didn’t share her Nana’s enthusiasm for an exhibition (thanks to the other Nanas who emerged from offices and reading rooms for a cuddle!) Baby asleep, I was able to return and finish reading, and it was well worthwhile. It does have a Melbourne focus, with images of the buildings specially constructed for the Games and some memorabilia, but the exhibition has a much broader focus. It’s a completely different view of the Melbourne Olympics, and one that you think “Well, of course…” when you remember the political influences of the time.
If you’re interested in hearing Harry Blutstein talk about his book (which forms the basis of the exhibition), he was interviewed at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival and can be heard on Big Ideas here.