|Olympic Experiences by Eric Hall
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - August 2012
Almost everyone will, by now, be fed up with all things Olympic but in earlier times the venues were not so opulent, teams as large and ticket selling as complicated. In 1948 plans were much more "grass roots", tickets being sold through sports clubs and, for the main stadium, the price was 7s 6d (37.5p). The security was very lax - on one day my wife was carried over the turnstile as her father had just two tickets for himself and his wife.
My connection with those Games was limited to pestering athletes for autographs as one of the villages housing them was close to where we lived. A great deal is heard of the Olympic legacy, in 1948 with few television sets around, we waited patiently for a film to be released. Other than that everything returned to normal.
In the years since 1948, when 4,000 competed, the figures had risen to over 10,000 by 1996 bringing with them a different set of problems with over 200 countries requiring accommodation. Staging the Games is no longer mainly the prerogative of the European nations and this has coincided with the expansion of travel by air.
In 1956 Melbourne became the first Games to be staged in the Southern Hemisphere with only 3,250 competing - the smallest number, even now, since the Second World War and the only time they were staged in two countries as Australian quarantine laws prevented the equestrian events taking place there, so they were held in Sweden.
Travelling to Melbourne by air in those days took "Team GB" 4/5 days. We left Heathrow in 5 flights, in my case heading east along with 77 others on November 6th on board a fully loaded Lockheed Constellation. We landed for refuelling and major meals starting in Athens for breakfast and almost an international incident when the locals made it clear they were unhappy with the activities of the British army in Cyprus. Having just lost a Club mate in the troubles, and with several service lads in the team, we reacted by tearing up the leaflets. Leaving Athens without knowing exactly where our next stop was going to be due to the Suez emergency, we flew north of Syria and then south to arrive in Basra as the largest, and heaviest, aircraft at that time to use the airport. Onwards to Karachi, Calcutta and Singapore where we had an overnight stop and a curfew thanks to anti British riots! An early start and we headed for Australia across the Timor Sea. I recall, very clearly, an announcement by the Captain calling for 2 minutes silence as it was coming up to 11am on 11th November- I regret never recording the distance we travelled in that time - probably not more than 10 miles at most.
We arrived in Darwin in the north of Australia late in the evening. There we saw aircraft used by the Flying Doctor service and were warned about crocodiles. While eating dinner we met members of other teams travelling to the Games. In particular we met part of the Hungarian team who had fled from the uprising against the Russians in their country. They had left homes without uniforms and not knowing whether they would be able to return.
From Darwin it was an all night flight to Melbourne. Despite arriving at about 6.30 a.m. we received a great welcome and were taken to West Heidelberg which was to be our home for the next month - for acclimatisation and participation. Our first lesson was to ration ourselves when faced with quantities, and varieties, of food unknown to us in Britain. The next lesson was to learn how to train in an Australian spring with hot weather and not much else to do in the Village. We were some ten miles from Melbourne itself and when we did get into the City we were constantly stopped for a chat or autographs. Dozens of the locals besieged the Village offering to take us out, or, if recent emigrants, they wanted to speak to locals "from home" often expressing a wish to return with us.
After about two weeks "acclimatisation" it was the Opening Ceremony. We boarded 'buses in the village and were driven ten miles through streets crammed full of cheering people, especially when they spotted "Team GB". Assembling near the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) we marched in to face 108,000 noisy spectators (ground capacity 100,000) to await the opening of the Games by the Duke of Edinburgh and the arrival of the Flame and the taking of the Oaths. Then back in the buses and the return to the Village.
We had none of the "cultural displays" of more recent Games which we did not need as it was an extremely hot day in the heavy uniforms we had been issued with. The Games started next day and my event took place a few days later. A very hot, humid day, unlike the previous one, led to several withdrawals and out of 23 entries only 13 finished. Although I remember the out and back 31 mile long course I have no recollection of returning to our quarters. The blue painted line we followed remained on the roads for many years to come!
Even though the event was over there was still work to be done. We had those walking 20 kms a few days later, to be looked after during their race and similarly for the marathon, on the last day of the athletics. Then was the time for sightseeing! We had available to us cars provided by the Holden car company and one of our walkers worked for their associated company in the UK, Vauxhall, and so we toured the countryside. One day, having driven over 100 miles, we stopped for petrol and on enquiring how far it was to the next town came the reply "about 700 miles, a place named Sydney". We rapidly turned round and headed back to Melbourne!
Finally we had to leave - to the playing of "Will ye no come back again" which still brings a lump to my throat whenever I hear that tune. So back on the plane, first stop Sydney in low cloud preventing a view of The Bridge. After refuelling and eating we settled into our former routine and it was then that we learned we were travelling home via the USA so giving us a round the world flight. Fiji, then Canton Island (find that in a modern Atlas?). Hawaii in a tropical storm which blew the lounge windows in and we had to undergo questioning by the US authorities to obtain temporary visas. On to Los Angeles where to fill in time we were driven round the City sightseeing.
From there we boarded an American aircraft, as foreign airlines were banned from US air space, to Colorado and New York for an overnight stop. A quick leg stretch in the City and then we were off to Gander in Newfoundland where we landed in a heavy snowstorm. Once the runways were cleared we set out for Heathrow and home. London Airport, unlike today, was almost deserted, to say nothing of Waterloo Station, where the lone ticket collector raised his eyebrows when confronted by a passenger wearing a panama hat on a very cold December morning, and then it was home to sleep for more than 18 hours.
What had I learned? A fair amount of geography; some current history; a little about Australia which left me with an urge to visit again which I did for the first time 40 years later for a reunion of a large number of the survivors from 1956 - The Friendly Games.
My hope is that the 2012 teams will have great memories of their Games and that they will appreciate the hospitality they receive, as much as I did, and that they will wish to come back.
Editor's Footnote. The above article was written by Eric Hall, our resident historian, researcher and indefatigable compiler of the Centenary Chronicles. Eric, as you will have read, competed in the 50 kilometers Walk at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956, and again, over 20 kilometers, in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.