Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Summer

Three countries boycott the Games in Melbourne

Geopolitics spilled into competition whenever Hungarians and Soviets faced each other. The Australian crowds took sides, cheering the Hungarians from their first appearance at the Opening Ceremony booing the Soviets.

Less than three weeks before the Opening Ceremony the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to quash a popular uprising against the Communist regime.

Betty Cuthbert of Australia wins the 200m beating Christa Stubnik of Germany ( silver) and Marlene Mathews of Australia ( bronze) during the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. ((Allsport UK /Allsport))

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Melbourne won the right to hold the 1956 Olympics by one vote over Buenos Aires. Despite that close vote, the Games were not held in the Southern Hemisphere again until they returned to Australia in 2000. The 1956 Games was also the only time an Olympics has been held in two different cities. Because of Australia's strict animal quarantine laws, the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June of that year.

The Games were held in Melbourne from November 22 to December 8, the latest the Summer Olympics have ever been held - and that was not even summer in Australia. And plenty happened in the 10-plus months before they opened.

The Numbers

Number of nations: 72

Number of athletes: 3,314 (376 women, 2,938 men)

Number of sports: 17

Number of events: 145

Number of people who collapsed due to heat during opening ceremonies: 225

Minimum winning margin by U.S. basketball team: 30

Political ill will abounds

The Melbourne Games were as fraught with political ill will as any of their predecessors. In July, Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal from Britain and France, and then in October, Britain and France invaded Egypt to regain control, sparking a full-blown international crisis,  a month before the Games.

Then in November, less than three weeks before the Opening Ceremony the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to quash a popular uprising against the Communist regime.

The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland all boycotted the Games to protest against the Soviet invasion, and the boycotts didn't end there. China stayed home because of Taiwan's participation, and Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted the Games because of  the worsening Middle Eastern political situation.

The International Olympic Committee did have one political success. The IOC brought East and West Germany together as a combined team under a flag bearing the Olympic rings. The unified German team used Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ("Ode to Joy") as its anthem and would compete in this format in 1960 and 1964, as well.

Multiple gold medallists

Agnes Keleti  (HUN)  Gymnastics:  4

Larissa Latynina (USSR)  Gymnastics:  4

Viktor Chukarin (USSR)  Gymnastics:  3

Betty Cuthbert (AUS)  Athletics:  3

Bobby Morrow (USA)  Swimming:  3

Valentin Muratov (USSR)  Gymnastics:  3

Murray Rose (AUT)  Swimming:  2

Lorraine Crapp (AUS)  Swimming:  2

Leandro Faggin (ITA)  Cycling:  2

Dawn Fraser (AUT)  Swimming:  2

Gert Fredriksson (SWE) Canoe-Kayak:  2

Charles Jenkins (USA)  Athletics:  2

Rudy Karpati (HUN)  Fencing:  2

Vladimir Kuts (USSR)  Athletics:  2

Edoardo Mangiarotti (ITA)  Fencing:  2

Pat McCormick (USA) Diving:  2

Carlo Pavesi (ITA) Fencing:  2

Leon Rotman (ROM)  Canoe-Kayak:  2

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty (AUT)  Athletics:  2

Hungary vs. Soviet Union

Geopolitics spilled into competition whenever Hungarians and Soviets faced each other. To begin with, two of Hungary's top athletes were prevented from competing by the Soviet invasion. Swimming champion Geza Kadas was in prison and a Hungarian decathlete had actually been killed during the invasion.

The Australian crowds took sides, cheering the Hungarians from their first appearance at the Opening Ceremony booing the Soviets and largely giving the Americans the silent treatment, presumably because the United States declined to intervene in the Hungarian crisis.

The most spectacular confrontation between Hungarians and Soviets came in the already highly physical sport of water polo. Their match turned violent after a Soviet player headbutted a Hungarian player, giving him a deep gash over his eye. The bleeding player was pulled from the pool, and a brawl broke out involving both players and spectators. Police were called in to protect the Soviet team from an angry crowd.

Hungary was leading 4-0 when the brawl began and was declared the winner, and the Hungarians went on to win the gold medal, much to the Australians' satisfaction.

Keleti vs. Latynina

There was at least one more symbolic confrontation between Hungary and the Soviet Union, this time in women's gymnastics. Soviet Larissa Latynina was 21; Hungary's Agnes Keleti was 35 - twice the age of a typical female gymnastics champion over the past three decades. All but one of the five individual women's events, including the all-around competition, came down to a showdown between Latynina and Keleti.

Keleti won the uneven bars and the balance beam; Latynina won silver in both and was forced to share the gold with Keleti in her own specialty, the floor exercise. That should have put Keleti in excellent position to win the all-around title, except for a catastrophic performance on the vault. Latynina won the vault, while Keleti finished 23rd, which gave Latynina the winning edge in the all-around competition.

Neither woman had anything to be ashamed of. Including team events, Keleti wound up with four gold and two silver, while Latynina took home four gold, one silver and one bronze. Over her Olympic career, which lasted until the 1964 Games, Latynina won a record nine gold medals and 18 medals overall.

As for Keleti, her career was over - and so was her life in Hungary. She received political asylum in Australia, along with 44 other Hungarian athletes, and later emigrated to Israel.

Thanks largely to its gymnasts (Victor Chukarin led the men's competition with five medals), the Soviet Union won more medals than the United States for the first time.

Betty Cuthbert

Even more than budding swim superstar Dawn Fraser, the Australians made Elizabeth "Betty" Cuthbert their "Golden Girl" at the 1956 Games. The 18-year-old was the marquee member of the dominant women's sprint team in 1956, winning gold medals in the 100 metres, 200m and 4X100m relay.

It was a team that also featured Marlene Mathews, the bronze medallist in both the 100m and 200m, and the late Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, who was part of the relay team and defended her gold medal in the 80m hurdles. de la Hunty won seven medals all told in three Olympics going back to 1948.

But Cuthbert was the one closest to Aussies' hearts and remained so even after she had to pull out of the 1960 Olympics with a hamstring injury. She came back in 1964 and won the 400m - a performance she deemed to be "the only perfect race of my life" and which made her the only sprinter to win Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 400m.

Over an eight-year period, Cuthbert was continually editing the record books for all the sprint events up to 400m. By 1979, however, Cuthbert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was a sentimental favourite at the 2000 Opening Ceremonies in Sydney, appearing in a wheelchair as she carried the Olympic Torch.

Canadian medallists

Coxless Fours crew  (Rowing):  gold

Gerald Ouellette  (Shooting):  gold

Men's eight crew  (Rowing):  silver

Gil Boa (Shooting):  bronze

Irene MacDonald (Diving):  bronze

Three-Day Event team (Equestrian):  bronze

Other stars

The political storylines were gripping, but overshadowed a lot of superlative performances.

  • Alain Mimoun of France had won the silver behind Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia in the 10,000m in 1948 and 1952, and had to settle for silver behind the Czech Locomotive in the 5,000m in 1952, but he finally got the better of Zatopek in winning the 1956 marathon. Zatopek, to be fair, was recovering from a hernia injury and finished sixth.
  • Vladimir Kuts of Russia won both the 5,000m and 10,000m with Zatopek and Mimoun focusing on the marathon.
  • Australia's Betty Cuthbert was the women's sprinting star with gold medals in the 100m, 200, and 4X100m relay.
  • American sprinter Bobby Morrow won three gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4X100m relay.
  • American diver Pat McCormick won gold in both the women's springboard and platform diving for the second time.
  • Murray Rose, a 17-year-old Australian, beat his Japanese rival, Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, to win the 400m and 1,500m freestyle events and added a third gold in the 4X200m freestyle.
  • Fellow Aussie Dawn Fraser won the first of her three straight gold medals in the 100m freestyle.
  • Flyweight Laszlo Papp of Hungary became the first boxer to win three straight gold medals.

Canada won six medals including a gold medal in fours rowing won by a novice team. Gerry Ouellette won gold with a perfect score of 600 in the prone-position, small-bore rifle competition, while Gil Boa won bronze in the same event.

 Country  Gold  Silver  Bronze  Total
1.  USSR  37  29  32  98
2.  USA  32  25  17  74
3.  Australia  13  9  14  36
4.  Hungary  9 10  7  26
5.  Italy  8  8  9  25
15.  Canada  2  1  3  6
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