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Syme, Ken: Melbourne Olympic Games (1956)

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clip Opening ceremony education content clip 1, 2

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Clip description

From the stands, Ken Syme records part of the opening ceremony. The Australian athletes enter the stadium at the MCG. The Olympic flag is raised and hundreds of doves are released into the air. Champion runner Ron Clarke enters the stadium bearing a fizzling Olympic flame before lighting the Olympic cauldron to commence the Games.

Curator’s notes

The flame which Ron Clarke carried onto the Olympic Stadium, while spectacular, was also dangerous. A mixture of magnesium and aluminium flakes were used to make the flame visible to viewers in the crowd, but clumps of material fell onto the track, and Clarke’s hand was burned. This caused him to miss out on the rest of the Opening Ceremony. In this clip, Clarke can be seen quickly moving away from the cauldron to extinguish the flame as soon as he’s lit it.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows silent, colour home movie footage of parts of the opening ceremony of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, filmed from a stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The clip begins with a sequence of the Australian team marching into the ground. The Olympic flag is then brought forward, the Games are officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh, the flag is hoisted and hundreds of doves are released. The torchbearer, runner Ron Clarke, is shown entering the ground, completing a lap and lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Educational value points

  • The 1956 summer Olympic Games were held in Melbourne from 22 November to 8 December, the first time the Games had been held in the southern hemisphere. Only 67 of a possible 87 nations attended. A number of teams boycotted the Games in protest against either the USSR’s invasion of Hungary or Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsular. By contrast, 199 nations were represented at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
  • Australia, as the host nation, marched last. Having waited more than 2 hours, the huge crowd gave the team a standing ovation as it entered the stadium. According to Australian sprinter Marlene Matthews, 'if there’d have been a roof on the stadium I’m sure it would have gone sky high’ (www.abc.net.au). The Australian flag was carried by sculler Merv Wood, who was competing at his fourth Olympics. Wood had previously carried the flag in the opening ceremony at Helsinki in 1952. He remains the only person ever to have been accorded this honour twice.
  • The Australian team consisted of 325 athletes – 279 men and 46 women. The low ratio of women to men is clearly evident in the clip, but in fact Australia had a higher-than-average proportion of women in its team, compared with the other countries represented in the 1956 Games. The Australian team won 13 gold, 8 silver and 14 bronze medals, making Australia the third-highest medal winner. Seven of the 13 gold medals were won by women.
  • The Australian team is shown marching with military precision, and this emphasis on formation marching is in marked contrast to the informality of the relaxed and waving teams that paraded at the Sydney 2000 Olympic opening ceremony. As the team marches past, a rippling movement can be seen as the members remove their hats in the royal salute to Prince Philip. Several teams failed to give the royal salute, but documents at the time explained this away as 'inadvertence, preoccupation with precise marching or the distance to the royal box’ (www.naa.gov.au). Nothing controversial was allowed to mar the reporting of the 'Friendly Games’.
  • As silent film, the clip naturally fails to capture the cheering and all the other sounds of the opening ceremony. The teams marched in to the sound of massed bands, and a trumpet fanfare announced the hoisting of the Olympic flag. This was followed by a 21-gun salute as the Games were opened and doves, symbolising peace, were released. After the Olympic cauldron was lit, a 1,200-strong choir sang the Olympic Anthem.
  • One of the highlights of the clip is the footage of 19-year-old Ron Clarke carrying the Olympic torch. Clarke was at the time the world junior record holder for the mile. Earlier runners in the torch relay had carried a torch fuelled by a block of naphthalene and hexamine, but a more spectacular and highly visible flame was needed for the stadium. The torch Clarke carried was burning a mixture of magnesium and aluminium flakes, and the clip vividly illustrates the flaring, spitting flame and the fragments of magnesium dropping onto the track around Clarke. These fragments scorched holes in Clarke’s T-shirt and burned his arm.
  • The 1956 Olympics took place during the Cold War, shortly after the USSR had invaded Hungary. The tension between these two countries erupted in an aggressive and violent water polo contest, known afterwards as the 'blood in the water’ match. The match was abandoned a minute before full time, with Hungary in the lead (4-0). Police were called in to calm the partisan Hungarian–Australian crowd, and the match was awarded to Hungary. A number of the team members sought sanctuary rather than return to Hungary.
  • A crowd of 103,000 was present at the opening ceremony, the greatest number until the Sydney opening ceremony in 2000. As the camera pans to follow the flight of the doves, the size of the crowd in the packed stands is evident. The gates opened at 10 am to allow the crowd to be seated by the start at 4 pm. In marked contrast to today’s Games, there was no pre-opening spectacular. Instead, the Royal Papuan Constabulary gave a display at 2 pm and the Royal Australian Navy band marched at 2.30 pm.
  • Although the cinematography is amateur, consisting mainly of fixed shots from various angles, the clip does contain several close-ups and one panning shot. Probably edited 'in the camera’, the home movie reflects what particularly impressed Syme in the opening ceremony. Much of the enduring value of home movie footage lies in its eye-witness record of historical events and its personal narrative.

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