David Owen

It is hardly a case of ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’

More like, "Crisis? Which Crisis?" - by which I mean that the situation in Brazil has reached such a point it is almost impossible to predict what direction the next headache for organisers of this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games will come from.

And yet, in a brief flit to Lausanne this week, coinciding with the 2016 SportAccord Convention, I detected no sense of panic at what pessimists might script as a potentially devastating culmination to the sport movement’s annus horribilis.

What I did detect was a stubborn, almost sullen determination that, "You know what? We are going to get through this", that, come what may, the exploits of the athletes will combine with the majesty of the setting to make Rio 2016 at least a qualified success.

For once, I think, this state of mind is not to be confused with complacency.

It is more a case of drawing reassurance from something that my insidethegames colleague Alan Hubbard touched on yesterday: the track record built up by the movement over several decades of facing down an array of crises of bewildering diversity and still demonstrating the capacity to put on a good show at the end of it all.

The example I want to focus on is one that is not usually included in the front rank of Olympic crisis management tales, but which possibly should be: this is the prelude to “The Friendly Games”, Melbourne 1956.

Had anyone had the foresight or temerity to suggest at almost any moment between the ballot in April 1949 that handed the Games to the Australian city by one vote from Buenos Aires and the Closing Ceremony seven-and-a-half years later that this would be the event’s abiding epithet, the notion would have been dismissed as laughable.

As summarised elsewhere on this website, the long build-up to the first Olympics in the southern hemisphere was “littered with problems”: Australia’s strict quarantine laws forced the equestrian events to be staged outside the country, as it turned out in Sweden; many competitors stayed away because the Games were held outside their normal seasons and Melbourne deemed too far away; and the event was hit by not one but two politically-inspired boycotts, linked respectively to the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Uprising.

The build-up to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne was fraught with problems
The build-up to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne was fraught with problems ©Getty Images

As late as March 1953, Avery Brundage, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, urged the Organising Committee and Melbourne city authorities to consider “the question of whether you wish to proceed in view of the fact that 1) there is so much opposition; 2) there are so many hazards to overcome and so many sacrifices to be made both in Australia and elsewhere; 3) there are so many possibilities of an unsatisfactory outcome”.

That January, Brundage had asserted he thought that “85 per cent of [National Olympic Committees (NOCs)] would thank you if Melbourne would relinquish the Games”.

It is a string of telegrams, dispatched in 1956 as the Hungarian Uprising took its unpredictable course and the days counted down to the November 21 Opening Ceremony, that to me really brings a fraught, and for some tragic, chain of events alive.

For any younger readers, telegrams were the Tweets of their age, with a premium on conciseness, encouraging the communication of messages using as few words as possible.

On November 2, two days before the Soviet invasion of Budapest, the Czechoslovak Olympic Committee cables to say that its Hungarian counterpart has asked it to facilitate the departure of its team from Prague to Melbourne.

“Hungarian Olympic athletes are in good condition in our leading sports centres awaiting arrival of two French aircraft, company TAI, that should take them to Australia stop,” the telegram reads.

“Please communicate this to IOC President Mr Avery Brundage.”

A reply from IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer offers warm thanks for the assistance afforded.

It is worth noting that these Hungarian athletes ended up winning an impressive 26 medals, enough to rank them fourth in the medal table behind only the Soviet Union, the United States and Australia.

Five days later, Mayer gets a cable from OrganisingCommittee head Kent Hughes: “Following cable sent today to Holland NOC.

“Quote, ‘Terribly upset by your cable stop.

“Could athletes already here be allowed to compete stop.

“Would much appreciate reconsideration of Holland’s participation in view of Hungarian continuance stop.

“All teams in Village trying to make Olympic influence stronger than ever in view of international discords’ unquote”.

Mayer replies: “Doing utmost urging all hesitating countries to participate stop.

“Shall intervene again Holland”.

The Melbourne Olympics were hit by boycotts
The Melbourne Olympics were hit by boycotts ©Getty Images

Two days later, another Mayer telegram informs the Australians: 

To no avail: on November 12, one Pedro Ybarra MacMahon informs Mayer: “Having obtained full meeting of Spanish Olympic Committee for Saturday to reconsider situation non-participation Melbourne, they maintained previous decision stop”.

On the same day though, the IOC Chancellor was able to report to Melbourne: “Thanks our intervention Switzerland participates stop.

“Trying liberate Bulgarian team restrained quarantaine [sic] Karachi stop.

“Intervening also Libanon [sic] stop.

“Please inform Brundage.”

Finally, on November 14, another let-down: “Despite efforts Lebanon don’t reconsider,” Mayer informs the Australian hosts, “and impossible getting plane for Swiss team whose participation is cancelled for that only reason am most upset stop.”

Breathless, dramatic stuff.

In the event, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and China did not participate in the Games, along with The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.

Incidentally, with our minds turning increasingly towards Rio 2016, it is worth recording that among offers to stage the 1956 equestrian events that were unable to take place in Melbourne was one from the Brazilian Olympic Committee.

Rio might have made its Olympic debut six decades ago.