“Can we meet later?” reads the text message. “I’ve got to support someone in court.” I had arrived at the shopping centre in the Melbourne suburb of West Heidelberg, the site of the 1956 Olympic village, hoping to join a tour, along with some schoolgirls from a local Catholic school, led by long-time local resident Christine. “So they can see what poverty is like,” she’d told me. But Christine is busy and so, unguided, I decide to show myself around.
I had just got off the plane from a stint as an aid worker in cyclone-ravaged Fiji and was still unsure what country I was in. But if my mind was still in the Pacific Islands, my feet pushed forward into the streets of West Heidelberg, twelve kilometres from the centre of Melbourne, as if the act of walking would slowly coax my body and brain back together. As I emerged from one mental universe, I found myself in another, an Australia I distantly recognised.
Against a bright blue sky, a model suburb from the 1950s began to emerge, with pale brick houses, sizeable yards and streets lined with immense red gums. Only the small size of the houses and the narrowness of the streets betrayed that they had originally been designed as a scale model for housing athletes rather than as longer-term homes. The buildings themselves had been constructed with bricks from the Housing Commission’s factory in Holmesglen and, in the prim official language of the day, were intended to “present a pleasing contemporary pattern of form and colour.”
If the Olympic village offers a glimpse back in time, its construction – and the conduct of the “Friendly Games” themselves – mirrored the tense international political balancing act of the turbulent year 1956. In the official film of the Olympics, The Melbourne Rendezvous, the opening sequence and narration set a disquieting tone. Images of an enormous steel smelter, set to the doomsday chorus of a mass male choir, accompanied a narrative of industrial alienation in the deepening cold war. A resonant American voice intoned:
Modern man has made his entire world into a monstrous flaming arsenal. To protect himself against the inhuman forces of his own invention, he hides behind a thousand masks and disguises, rudely turning his back on the profound but simple miracle of his own being. He has put his faith in gigantic, complex machines and he cannot live without them. Ignoring his own pure strength, he stares spellbound and frightened at a world he can no longer understand. Is there an opportunity for men to act as men, free and unencumbered by science and their own inventions?
Luckily there is… the Olympic Games.
As the film panned over serried rows of pristine suburban homes, and as the narrator wondered, with obvious incredulity, why a small provincial backwater like Melbourne was the host city, a more frightening and uncertain world was beginning to emerge. In 1956, the first nuclear tests on Australian soil were conducted at Maralinga; the Soviet army invaded Hungary to suppress the anti-Soviet Hungarian Uprising; and British, Israeli and French forces had occupied the Suez Canal. This led to Olympic boycotts by Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon over the Suez Crisis, and Holland, Spain and Switzerland over the Soviet invasion of Budapest. “Red” China (in the language of the day) refused to attend, owing to the presence of official representation from Taiwan.
In the United States, it was the year Elvis Presley released his first album, Elvis Presley Rock ’n’ Roll,featuring “Blue Suede Shoes,” while Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat in the “whites only” section of an Alabama bus, as part of the wider desegregation and Civil Rights movement. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela faced his first trial for treason against the apartheid regime, while anticolonial movements in Algeria and Vietnam reached their bloody apogee in, respectively, the Battle of Algiers and the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu.
In this global context, the construction of the Olympic village, and the equally constructed epithet that styled the event itself as the “Friendly Games,” suggested that Australia was slowly emerging from Dominion status while navigating the growing tensions of the cold war, radical social change and the end of European empire.
Was the order and conformity, the “pleasing contemporary pattern,” of the West Heidelberg streets an urban planner’s response to a “world he can no longer understand”? The official Olympic film suggests as much. An image of the great Olympian Shirley Strickland as she trimmed a rose bush in her neat, modern suburban home, then turned to the sky as a passenger jet roared past carrying incoming competitors, ended with the narration, “For some reason, Australian women prefer sport to back-fence gossiping.” It was as if the tide of change could be held at bay by javelin throwing, long-distance running and casual sexism.
Gaining confidence now and warmed by the sun, I walk under the Olympic rings that mark the entrance to the village and through the narrow, curling suburban streets dotted on either side by meek bungalows with pitched roofs and cream and yellow bricks. Vast gums line some streets and dominate the intersections, while neat lawns, privet hedges and tall plane trees are a model of Australian suburbia in the late afternoon sun. Some of the houses reflect a modest contentment with life – small but pleasant brick buildings that, in the wealthier surrounding suburbs, are rapidly being demolished to make way for towering McMansions. In West Heidelberg, too, some of the yellow fibro constructions, built as temporary athletes’ accommodation, are noticeably beginning to age and occasionally give way to newer, bigger townhouses.
As I walk, I am struck by the street names. They are a triumphant string of second world war victories where Australian forces were present in the Pacific and the Western Desert of Egypt and Libya. Many of those names are obscure now, but in 1956 they would have been part of recent collective memory. Here, the great battles of Midway, Tarakan, Tobruk, Kokoda, El Alamein, Bardia (in the Libyan desert), Morotai (in Indonesia) and Goodenough Island (off Papua New Guinea) cartographically intersect.
Only Australia’s colonial rule in Papua New Guinea was given greater prominence by local urban planners. The Papuan names of Moresby, Lae, Morobe, Malahang, Ramu and Wewak all feature proudly in the West Heidelberg streetscape. As European empire retreated around the globe, the old order lived on in the cream brick and colonial symmetry of an Olympic village that, with evident uncertainty about the new world, proclaimed an internationalism cloaked in military might and direct rule. In the 1950s, official Australia still saw itself, in Rudyard Kipling’s formulation, as part of the Empire’s “dominion over palm” (if not over pine).
But while West Heidelberg had once been large in the eyes of the world, there were visible signs that not all was right. A sign in a nearby phone box reads “RIP Trudy,” while a fake heritage plaque on a small fibro house, rather than announcing the former presence of a forgotten dignitary, informs passers-by that “Shit Happens.” In the next street, an enormous ute with a row of shooting lamps above the cabin is identified by the numberplate “Agro 0.” On some of the two-storey blocks of flats, a community regeneration program has put up large, locally made signs with words intended to inspire – “Hope” swishes across a wall in lively red and yellow spray paint, “Wish” and “Chance” express a more equivocal sentiment. The last two words are bright but illegible and suggest a disintegration of former optimism.
The Mall, celebrated as Australia’s first drive-in shopping centre, runs alongside the village and is equally suggestive of an antiquated modernism. Here, social planning policies of the era sought a concentration of the poor – ostensibly with the humane rationale of giving people a place to live but with the long-term consequence of producing intergenerational “locational disadvantage.” But if West Heidelberg is one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, it is also one of the most rapidly changing. Along the Mall, traditional shops like Joe’s Meats and St Vinnies are being supplemented and replaced by those run by Somali migrants, reinvigorating local social life. Maidan Café, Maneeq Fashion Shop, Lebra Perfumes and Fathia Boutique have sprung up alongside the bottle shop, the TAB and various social services, taking advantage of cheap rents and prime positions, and transforming local life. The smell of coffee and freshly ground zaatar mingles with the occasional greasy waft from the fish-and-chip shop.
In an era of unparalleled destruction of Melbourne’s Victorian past, the 1956 Olympic village was an image of cleanliness, order and 1950s modernity that emphasised both national singularity and Empire loyalty. These decaying sentiments are woven into the urban fabric and provide an underlying stratum to subsequent layers of poverty, migration and gradual gentrification.
In its Olympic heyday, West Heidelberg was buzzing. The Victorian Housing Commission had constructed the village in record time for the arrival of 4700 athletes. The involvement of the Housing Commission was crucial, as it enabled the state government of John Cain Snr to respond to critics who argued that the games were a waste of the money that could have been spent on addressing Melbourne’s housing shortage. In a moment of desperation as the games approached, the organising committee hit upon the novel idea of an Olympic village, based on the garden city model of postwar suburban expansion, in place of the segregated barrack-like dormitories that had characterised athletes’ accommodation at previous games. Answering its detractors, the government announced that the Olympic village would become social housing once the games were over.
The village layout meant that teams could be accommodated together in houses, or groups of houses, fostering a spirit of “Olympism.” The practicalities of this sentiment were explained to Geoffrey Ballard, who became the deputy commandant of the Olympic village after responding to an advertisement describing the position’s attractions. “The hours are atrocious and the pay impossible,” he was told. The village commandant, Philip Miskin, a former Japanese POW, described Ballard’s role: “We are to be hosts to the young men and women of about seventy nations without distinction of colour, race, politics or creed… We must make no distinctions between any of them,” a sentiment Miskin took seriously given the horror of his wartime experiences.
While retaining the theme of military victories and colonial possessions in the Pacific, some streets were renamed to avoid reminding participants of wartime confrontations their home countries had lost. Care was taken that teams from countries with current political tensions were kept apart and separate dining facilities were provided so that athletes would eat together according to their “dietetic groups,” with a separate kitchen for the Israeli team and Halal meat “for the Mohammedans.” In response to a South African request to be located in a “white area” so as not to interact with black athletes, an affronted Miskin replied, “It was not you we were thinking of, but other people.”
If politics and food separated the athletes within the Olympic village, it was the first time both male and female athletes were housed within the same facility, although in separate quarters. A high wire mesh surrounded the women’s quarters as “female guests are entitled to complete privacy and protection from embarrassment,” although a legend quickly grew about the antics of a “Greek pole-vaulter” for whom high walls presented no great obstacle to romance. Thoughtfully, the village organisers provided an official chaperone for female athletes in the form of Miss Allison Ramsay, a former international hockey player, whose no doubt irritating presence was officially described as “a far reaching gesture of much merit and… appreciated by the teams concerned.”
Male athletes were looked after by the “housewives” – mainly married women who did the cleaning. Geoffrey Ballard described this arrangement as “a successful move as the boys had mothers and not lovers to care for them.” While some “national habits” were “unpleasant to take,” on the whole the “housewives generally loved their boys” and Philip Miskin’s secretary, Miss Baker, took a shining to some of them. “Marigold had a ‘thing’ about Nigerians,” Miskin later remarked.
At the time, the athletes’ accommodation was noted for its luxuries. All houses had unlimited hot water and there were two beds per room with “thick inner-spring mattresses and collage-weave bedspreads.” Each room had a heater and the women’s quarters were equipped with “washing machines, electric steam irons and sewing machines.” The male competitors, apparently requiring less, were provided with electric razors. Each day, across the village, 20,000 meals were prepared and 6000 beds were made. Food procurement was a vast logistical undertaking: athletes consumed ten tonnes of butter, 45,000 eggs, seventy tonnes of vegetables, twenty tonnes of fish and one hundred tonnes of meat. Eight hundred scouts and sixteen “bilingualists” were recruited to provide ongoing assistance to competitors.
If running the Olympic village was a massive operation, it was also one that had to be flexible enough to accommodate the random and the unexpected. Dame Pattie Menzies, the wife of the prime minister, appeared one day and was spotted playing quoits, while the Duke of Edinburgh, who had the demanding official function of opening the games with a public address that lasted a full ten seconds, was inclined to “shoot off on his own” and had to be closely watched.
All of this was too much for local satirist Barry Humphries, whose incarnation as (the then) Mrs Edna Everage arose partly as a reflection of suburban Australia’s attempt to grapple with the outside world. Mrs Everage, before reaching international stardom, was an “Olympic housewife” who had to come to terms with some of her foreign guests’ strange habits. Her observations were broadcast on the very first day of Australian television, established in readiness for the 1956 Olympics.
I meet Brother Harry Prout, a member of the Catholic Marist Brothers – and Banyule (the local council) Citizen of the Year – in his house in Liberty Parade. “I’m a tea man myself,” Harry confides as, clutching a warm milky brew, we settle down in his living room with its olive-coloured fibro walls and grey polyester sofas. On the coffee table there is a cross made of twigs woven together with red knitting wool. The house is at once public and private – a home that also attests to Harry’s two decades living among the church community he started and has maintained from his living room. The only personal object is a picture of Harry as a young boy in a framed photo over the fireplace; he looks remarkably like the older Harry on the sofa in front of me, holding a mug of tea.
“You can say that after eighteen years we’ve failed,” he declares flatly. He arrived in West Heidelberg believing that his work would be to “build capacity through collaborative leadership” and to help people in poverty develop skills and talents, often overlooked by institutions, that could break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage. “I’m frequently asked if we’ve had any success,” he says, “but it’s not really like that.” The search in the community for “natural leaders” who could take on local organising had not succeeded. “We’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason,” Harry says. “It’s about listening to people and learning to live together well in an area of identified need.”
He has clearly more than achieved this. As state officials from Centrelink, teachers, the local police and church leaders have come and gone, Harry has remained in the Olympic village in the same old athletes’ housing as everyone else. Here he has listened, helped locals to negotiate the social welfare system, and coached people in their interactions with the authorities and, periodically, the courts. For Harry, living in West Heidelberg is about being a constant in the lives of people who have had few, if any, figures to rely on – lives characterised by the intergenerational costs of family break-ups, substance abuse and instability. I don’t detect a hint of regret or despondency in his tone.
“You might get to the end if you’re lucky,” he says, “or you might not. It’s not just an economic thing – it’s about being there and appreciating the gifts they have, it’s about being with people and not trying to change them.”
I ask Harry what these gifts are. He thinks for a second before answering. “For the middle class, ownership is the most important thing, and for the upper class it’s connections – but people here are tribal. They stick together and fight together and there is always someone to turn to.” He goes on to say that “there’s so much damage and brokenness” and recounts how, in a men’s group meeting he once held, ten out of twelve attendees said they had been sexually abused as children by members of their own family. “The essential building blocks of personal development are missing and what they’ve experienced is abandonment. They have no answer to the question who belongs to me?” The members of the community, he says, “feel imprisoned and have no choices. They don’t have any money and the homes they have are given to them. They are controlled and powerless and consequently are often restless.”
Harry tells me that the absence of stable institutions or family relationships has meant an almost excessive openness, with few boundaries set about what may or may not be appropriate in different contexts. There is limited concept of personal property or ownership. Shoplifting is an issue, and then there is the early sexualisation of young people. The main view, he says, is that “if it works, use it.” He has observed that adult emotional needs are frequently met by children, as the adults themselves are often without other adult friends. In some cases, children haven’t gone to school because parents would have felt too lonely at home without them. If there is a shortage of money, the currency has become gossip and “stuff,” which Harry does not see as just accumulated clutter. “There’s sometimes little more than a path between the kitchen, bedroom and the TV because of all the stuff.” This is a psychological reaction to the absence of stability and security. According to Harry, there is a fundamental level of brokenness and “the whole household structure needs reordering.”
But for all this absence of rules, conventions and moral compasses, he tells me, there is a strongly developed sense of “justice and a fair go.” This is more than hypothetical. The local court has moved to the centre of Melbourne’s CBD and social services have become increasingly centralised, leading to culture clashes between the relatively educated administrators, lawyers and housing bureaucrats applying the rules from afar and the social norms, based on survival, that underpin the lived reality of extreme poverty. Strongly held local concepts of justice and fairness are, in part, the reaction to what Harry describes as the “institutional violence” of the state.
These comments are echoed by Jeff Percy, manager of Olympic Adult Education Inc., a private vocational training and community centre. “It’s like a country town here,” he says, and briskly summarises the area’s problems: in the housing estate there are the old, the lonely, and those with drug and alcohol issues. Thirty-three per cent of the local population are people living with disabilities “and they all hate each other.” Their problems and needs are different, and to make matters worse, communal spaces designed to foster a collaborative spirit among athletes half a century ago only antagonise people whose lives and needs are now so different.
He tells me that his role is more than education: it is “living and learning,” and is fundamentally about building connections. Offering literacy and vocational classes is one way of doing this, but turning around postcode discrimination is another. The “3081 Angels” (West Heidelberg’s postcode is 3081) is a local support group that takes pride in the area’s rough image and provides child and maternal support, cups of tea to young mothers, and the important function of “just being there.” There are meetings of knitting clubs, the Women of West Heidelberg, and the Combined Pensioners Association. A social enterprise program runs community gardens where locals learn gardening skills while also learning about collaboration and the expectations of work.
I ask Jeff about the standard of housing. I had read disturbing stories about hot summers and freezing winters, ancient sewer pipes bursting and tardy response times from the housing department. “They’re gulag blocks,” he responds immediately. But the area is slowly changing. Among Olympic Adult Education’s board members are local residents who are members of the middle class – social workers, teachers, a university lecturer. An indication of change is the arrival in West Heidelberg of the “Transition Movement” – loose affiliations of young professionals who are attracted by communitarian ideals of living locally, tending common gardens and attempting to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. West Heidelberg, I learn, has recently seen the highest rise in house prices in Melbourne. “We need to be there for the unwell but support the well,” Jeff says, and starts telling me about his longer-term plans to obtain funding for a $5 million new community centre.
As I leave the building, he points to gleaming beds of flowers all around the carpark. “There’s a Vietnamese lady who lives next door who planted all these. I’m not sure what her name is but I think of her as Mrs Wong.” Standing in the sun, I suggest that Mrs Nguyen might be more appropriate, and he laughs before shaking my hand and correcting my Vietnamese pronunciation. Nearby, a white Mercedes van with no numberplates is piled high with possessions in front of a house whose sign, next to a faded Australian flag, reads “Dead End.”
The adjacent Mall is a lively place – even the bins are painted in rainbow colours with the words “Be you, stay cool, we are 3081WH.” Somali men sit outside smoking, drinking coffee and chatting as the top end of the street buzzes with social activity.
It is here, in the street that has become known informally as Somaliberg, that I have coffee with Dr Hussein Haraco, president of the Somali Australia Council of Victoria. “We don’t really know how many Somalis live here,” he says. “They often don’t register in the census and many are afraid to identify themselves as Somali or Muslim.” Despite this, Hussein estimates that there are about 13,000 Somalis in Victoria, about a third of them living in West Heidelberg, making the Mall a major centre of Somali émigré life.
Hussein is an elegant man with distinguished grey hair, a neatly clipped goatee and professorial rimless glasses, who completed a doctorate in economics in New Delhi before coming to Australia in the early 1990s. While he has been in the area for nearly two decades, in many ways he is the face of the new West Heidelberg. His conversation centres around commerce and urban development; he is on the community advisory board for the Olympia Project – a major urban regeneration program that plans to build more than 800 new homes to replace ageing Olympic-era housing stock. The influence of the local Somali vote means that he has been courted by politicians on both sides at state and federal level.
“My one regret,” he says to me, “is that I did not buy more while there was an opportunity.” Hussein opened one of the first Somali shops on the Mall – a pizza shop with a billiard table. The shop, like most of the others in the Mall, had been empty for many years and the Mall itself had become a centre of local drinking and drug use. The shop’s owners offered a cheap rent that they rarely increased because they were happy that, after nearly a decade, someone was finally doing business from the premises. The Somali community started coming to the pizza shop and the billiard table was a big attraction in the evenings.
Gradually, owing to cheap rents, other shops opened. Hussein rented a second pizza shop and now Somalis are running seven clothes shops, two groceries and five restaurants. A virtuous cycle of economic activity began to spring up. A local hairdresser opened and, Hussein tells me, people would come to the Mall for a haircut, then buy their groceries and stay for lunch. Investment in landscaping and a children’s play area began to attract families back to a shopping strip made more secure by the presence of people, commerce and activity.
But far from being satisfied with the change in which he has been so influential, Hussein sees this as only the first phase of development. The shops, he says, are “too old-fashioned.” Young people prefer the nearby Northland shopping centre and it is time to modernise. For this, he is highly conscious of the area’s Olympic heritage – it is a selling point, something that makes the area unique. He shows me a large poster on the wall of the cafe, depicting the suburb and the Mall in their 1950s heyday when everything was new and bustling. The Olympic rings and flags of many nations fly over Liberty Parade and headlines from contemporary newspapers excitedly proclaim “Melbourne’s first ‘drive-in’ shopping centre.”
It is time, Hussein says, to move to the second stage of business – a return, perhaps, to the glory days. “We have to be ready for change, whether it is remaining commercially viable or the needs of our children as they interact with Australian life, whatever it is – diabetes, mixed marriages.” As I leave, he sees a friendly but very drunk young Somali man who is being greeted by a couple of Caucasian revellers who are clearly high. They move on as Hussein approaches, and forty minutes later, when I return to the Mall to drive home, I see Hussein and the young man still standing, deep in conversation.
The stability brought by the Somali community is frequently noted as one of the major changes to the Mall. “I feel safe leaving work in the evenings – there are always some elderly Somali men around chatting,” says Blanche Wong, the manager of the local co-working space, rented for a “peppercorn lease” from Australia Post. It is a brilliant-white space – attractively clean and open – with meeting rooms, computers and work spaces. A number of startups have settled here, including an accountant, a web developer, and media and publishing services, who have been attracted to what Blanche, a recent accountancy graduate, describes as a “business incubator.” When I tell her I’m writing about the area, she counters that her friend has been recently nominated for a RITA Award. Looking it up on her computer, we find that it is “the highest award of distinction in romance fiction.”
“The Games? No, I wasn’t a bit interested,” says Aileen Erikson, aged ninety, who was among the first occupants of the Olympic village after the athletes had left, along with her husband Jim, a milk delivery man. Her sitting room is sprinkled with a dappled light that comes in through the trees in the front garden.
In 1956, with a young child, Aileen and Jim were offered their pick of the houses in West Heidelberg for a £50 deposit and subsequent payment by instalments. She selected this house, “which was all empty when I saw it,” because she took a shine to the cream-coloured bricks. Her street was largely Italian at the time, and her neighbours were a policeman and “a cook married to a French woman.” “It was a bit more classy then,” she says, “but I wouldn’t go back to those days. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m interested in. Our main role was to get married, have children, and make a home – women had to keep quiet.”
For a while, the environment deteriorated as a result of alcohol, violence and drugs. One time, Aileen “hid behind the door, scared out of my wits” owing to an altercation outside. But there are “many layers of living that have come into this place,” she tells me. Polishing up the Olympic village was important, and now migrants are “coming in with a bit more money, more culture, a bit more refined.” Two of her sons have moved to the more affluent suburbs of Box Hill and Springvale and tend to “look down on the area.” A third son converted to Buddhism and returned to live at home, where he practises silent meditation. “So I’m living with a Buddhist now,” she tells me, “but I’m more interested in experiencing life.”
Pausing one day to reminisce in front of the house of a friend who had died, Aileen met the new occupant, Suad, a young Muslim woman in a headscarf who is studying to be a teacher. The two discussed their experiences and pasts, and the role of women in their societies; and then, “caught up in all these cultures,” Aileen, the ninety-year-old “original,” and Suad, the young Somali teacher, ran off to the bus stop and went together to explore the nearby leafy suburb of Rosanna. “I thought I was her age,” Aileen says, gleaming as she recounts her adventure.
She shows me around the house and the backyard – a spacious block with a prominent Hills Hoist. “There weren’t any fences here when we arrived – it was all open and the children used to run everywhere.” Aileen hops lightly onto the back step and points over the fence at the big blue sky behind the house. “All that space,” she says, “used to be houses – all of this is being knocked down.”
Nearby, some of the athletes’ training facilities have been maintained, and the sporting tradition lives on through the local soccer club, Heidelberg United. John Lioupas has been with the club since he was a boy, and I meet him in Brunswick in the offices of the Greek Australian Welfare Society. Heidelberg United originated as a Greek social club and is still known in the Greek press by its original name, Heidelberg Alexander, a team whose glory days in the 1980s saw it crowned as national champion and host of the first soccer match broadcast by SBS. As Australian soccer began to professionalise, sporting authorities sought to widen the game’s appeal beyond its ethnic base and old teams with names like Alexander, Hellas and Croatia had to change. “It was ethnic cleansing,” John tells me angrily.
In Greek families, the club was a major social centre. “At the start of each week, Greek families’ money would be put on the table and allotted for different purposes – rent or mortgage, groceries, bills and, always, a bit left over for Alexander.” The club lost funding and was disbarred from competition for a period, but was kept alive by its dedicated supporters. “I’ve never been to an A-League game,” says John, despite his evident love of the game and role as a pioneer with United in developing women’s soccer. “They’re all owned in Dubai but my club is here. You can’t put up something that has no heritage – if you lose sight of that, you lose sight of where you want to be.”
In 2015, Heidelberg United reached the quarterfinal of the Football Federation Australia Cup against uber-club Melbourne City, part of the Manchester City franchise. Despite losing 5–0 to City’s hired stars, Heidelberg FC won a moral victory. In a moment of symbolism that would not have been lost on soccer’s authorities, the club contracted Kostas Katsouranis, a former captain of the Greek national team and winner of the European Championship in 2004, to play for one game. Despite the score, the presence of Katsouranis and a crowd that dwarfed most A-League matches meant that “we won the game before it started.” “Although,” he adds ruefully, “it would have been good if we’d scored a goal.”
When he was asked to recall how he felt about the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, prime minister Robert Menzies paused briefly before echoing William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.” His were “green and pleasant” memories of the “Friendly Games.” In reality, the Olympic village was a hastily built brick-and-fibro “Jerusalem” in what the local Olympic organisers themselves had described as a “desolate tract of land.”
The Olympics are many things – but ultimately they are perhaps least of all a sporting contest. They are described as moments of pride when not just the city, or the country, but more abstract national qualities are on international display; they are frequently seen as a moment of arrival, a coming of age, a process of national maturity. Revived and reinvented in 1894, the modern Olympics are the celebration and encapsulation – along with the commemoration of casualties of war – of the strangest of modern political phenomena: the nation-state. Olympic villages bear passing witness to this compressed moment of nation-building and myth-making, and linger in strange half-lives long after the games themselves have moved on and the athletes have been forgotten. They are the future as represented by the past. •
I would like to thank the many people who gave their time and experiences so generously for this article and who welcomed a complete stranger so openly into their homes and lives. They made this article so much fun to research and I hope it reflects a place they recognise. They are: Robin Grow, Dr George Giuliani, Associate Professor Deb Orr, Dr Hussein Haraco, Ismael Gabow, Blanche Wong, Brother Harry Prout, Jeff Percy, Kerry-Ann Joyce, Brian Joyce and Aileen Erikson.
This essay was first published in Griffith Review 53: Our Sporting Life.