Sport: Olympic War

  • Share
  • Read Later

Half the globe away from the world's shooting wars, the vanguard of an international brigade of athletes invaded Australia. They had come, so they were told, to promote peace. But the repercussions of far-off gunfire were felt in Melbourne's Olympic village—and might just possibly wreck the 1956 games.

Egypt and Iraq had withdrawn, would not be present to compete with their enemies. The Communist Chinese had pulled out in a fit of pique over an invitation to the Nationalists. Solemnly Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee's president, insisted that "in an imperfect world, if participation in sports is to be stopped every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests." The Olympics, he argued, are above politics; the games must go on.

Childish Idealism. The Netherlands' Olympic Chairman Johannes Linthorst Homan sadly replied: "In our optimism and our perhaps childish idealism we kept hoping that goodness would be recognized and that our playing the game could contribute to the establishment of a certain understanding . . . When the radio told us of what overcame Budapest through a cynical violation of all that is sacred to men, I wondered if going to Melbourne could have any sense. We are sportsmen, but we are not soft in the head, are we?'' The Netherlands' Olympic Committee answered that question by withdrawing from the games, donating 100,000 guilder?, ($26,000) of its Olympic fund to Hungarian war relief.

Other nations saw eye-to-eye with the Dutch. Spain and Switzerland withdrew. But this week, after worldwide appeals from sports fans and Olympic officials that the Swiss withdrawal would not help the cause of anti-Communism or world sport, the Swiss reversed themselves; all Swiss teams would participate except the gymnasts, who still refused to compete alongside the Russians.

Nervous Waiting. Lebanon also pulled out. There were rumors that Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg would follow. Still there were 69 nations officially on the Olympic rolls. The English and French had promised to compete. The U.S., with one of its best teams ever, had many of its members in Melbourne, and the rest were on the way. The Russians, who arrived five days late (their ship, the Gruzia, had killed time at sea until it seemed safe to put in at a Western port), loudly boasted of their prowess, gorged themselves on good Australian steaks, and promised to take all the medals in sight.

With the Russians had sailed a few members of the Hungarian team; they were stunned when they heard the news from their homeland, but did not know what to do. Olympic officials nervously awaited reaction from the arrival of the bulk of the Hungarian team. Meanwhile, the Olympic torch, lit in Grecian sunlight and flown south and east, was being carried by runners down the Australian continent. Australian Olympic Official W. S. Kent Hughes made a desperate plea to both athletes and spectators to save the games from politics. "Never before in the history of the modern Olympics," said he with crashing understatement, "have the games been staged in such difficult conditions . . ."