Collingwood and the 1956 Olympic Games
By: Glenn McFarlane
Melbourne hosted the 1956 Olympic Games – forever known as the ‘Friendly Games’.
And the Collingwood Football Club has a little-known association with the Games of the XVI Olympiad, which also happened to be the first Games held in the Southern Hemisphere and the first hosted outside of Europe and North America.
Melbourne was chosen to host the 1956 Games in April 1949, beating Buenos Aires by one vote, with other cities Mexico City, Montreal, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and San Francisco also missing out.
In winning the honour, the host city organising committee was afforded the right to choose two “demonstration sports” to be played. The first was to be a “foreign” sport, one which was not played on a wide scale in Australia. Baseball was eventually chosen.
The second was to be a “local” sport. The debate soon centred on Australian football, our indigenous game born just two years short of a century before Melbourne got to host the rest of the world in its own backyard.
As far back as late 1949 – just seven months after the city was chosen as the venue for 72 nations and more than 3000 athletes – Australian football was being spruiked as the logical “local” sport to be chosen.
At a meeting of the Australian Amateur Football Council in November 1949, there were a number of appeals made to convince Australian Olympic authorities that Victoria’s most popular sport had to be chosen.
One of the men leading the push was Collingwood’s long-time secretary, Frank Wraith. Representing the Australian Football Council at the meeting, Wraith called for a truce between all Australian football bodies in order to gain acceptance.
Wraith “expressed concern” about the attitudes of the state and federal governments in regard to football. He described the game as “a national industry, with an annual turnover of 1,000,000 pounds and that, because of the “apathy” of the state and federal governments, “the game does not have an area to call its own.”
It wasn’t until 1954 that the Olympic Games Organising Committee finally named Australian football as the “local” demonstration sport.
The catch was that, being an amateur event, the Olympics could never accept Victorian Football League footballers who were being paid to play the game.
So it was arranged that there would be two teams to represent the code – one from the Victorian Amateur Football Association and the other comprising a mix of amateur players from the Victorian Football League and the Victorian Football Association.
The match was scheduled to take place on Friday, December 7, 1956 – the penultimate day of the Games – at the redeveloped Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the VFL Grand Final had attracted 115,802 fans just a few months earlier.
Collingwood had three players selected among the combined VFL-VFA side – second year player Ray Gabelich and first year players Ken Turner and Brian Gray.
Another Magpie, Brian Turner, would be an emergency for the game alongside a young footballer from Prahran, who also happened to be a handy basketballer. His name was Lindsay Gaze.
And the man chosen to coach the combined side was two-time Collingwood premiership player, Bruce Andrew, who had played in the 1928 and 1930 flags, as part of the famous Magpie Machine side.
“The thing I will never forget about Bruce Andrew was him instructing us about kicking, and how he used to say: ‘You must have a taut instep,” Turner said this week.
Turner, who now lives in Queensland, will never forget the experiences of that 1956 summer. He not only got to play a part in the Olympics action, kicking a goal as a half forward in the “demonstration” game, but he also managed to secure seats to some of the most sought-after Games events.
“I was working for a master building at the time and was working at the MCG (on the redevelopment),” he said. “All of the workers got free passes to the day events at the MCG. He gave us the whole week or so off and we got to see so much of the Olympics action.”
Brian Gray, who played on the other half forward to Turner, still has his Olympics jumper, though he is searching for a team shot from that day. He knows it was taken, but has never seen it since, though was told it was spotted in a memorabilia shop in Sydney during the 2000 Games but it was not for sale.
“I’d love to think that team shot might come to light again one day because I’d like to see it,” Gray, who still lives in Melbourne, said.
Gray recalled that only amateur players were considered for selection after a series of practice matches.
“It was a great experience; one that I will never forget,” he said. “Even though we were only playing in a demonstration sport, we were still given the privileges of the other athletes. We got seats to some of the events; we even got participation medals. I’ve still got it and I’ve still got the jumper they gave us.”
The VFL-VFA wore emerald green with white trim and with the Olympic rings across the front. The VAFA jumper was white with emerald green trim.
Gabelich, who died in 2000, played in the back pocket on that long-gone afternoon.
Other prominent VFL players who represented the code in the game, which was played immediately after the Bulgaria-India soccer “bronze” medal game, included Melbourne’s Denis Cordner (captain), Hawthorn’s Brendan Edwards, and North Melbourne’s Laurie Dwyer.
Gray recalled: “What I recall more than anything else was playing on the half-forward flank and running up and down on the cinder track, which was still there and not covered. I don’t think anyone cared about it. We were just happy to be out there.”
The match took place a day before the Closing Ceremony, and the day after the infamous Russia-Hungary water polo match that spilled over into bloodshed in the pool, fuelled by Russia’s brutal crushing of a Hungarian uprising.
There was no such bitterness – and certainly no blood – in the Australian football demonstration match.
Percy Taylor, from the Argus, felt as if the “peculiar game” hadn’t quite endeared itself to the visitors to Melbourne.
He explained: “Let us hasten to add that no one should be really surprised they gained that impression. Why? It was out of season, which is fatal. It was an exhibition and as such lacked the fire that makes our game. And there was the absence of that partisan spirit, the life-blood of our game.”
Oddly enough, the VAFA team had the better of the VFL-VFA team for much of the game. Six goals to one in the opening term proved the difference, with the VAFA opening up a 31-point quarter-time lead. The VFL-VFA team outscored their opponents for the rest of the game, but the final margin was still 27 points.
But if the media were only lukewarm in its enthusiasm, the official Olympic Report of 1956 praised the match as being “played in the true amateur spirit, with an abundance of vigour and speed, plenty of good kicking and high marking, system and other characteristics of Australian football.”
Five goals to the VFL-VFA team in the second term cut the half-time deficit back to 22 points; but a goal-less third term for the VFL-VFA team saw the margin bloat out to 36 points. In the end, the final margin was 27 points – 8.7 (55) to the VAFA team’s 12.9 (81).
Throughout the game, it was said: “an expert interesting commentary was broadcast, explaining the rules as interpreted by the umpire.”
While the demonstration match involving the three Collingwood players is now all but long forgotten except for those who played in it, or happened to witness it, there was another benefit derived from it.
The game was filmed as part of a trial, with 1956 being the year in which television came to Melbourne. And the VFL agreed the following year to allow the three television stations – Channels 7, 9 and 2 – to broadcast the last quarter of games live each week.
Fittingly, those three men who represented Collingwood and the code in the same year – Gabelich, Turner and Gray – would play important roles in the Magpies’ amazing 1958 premiership triumph at the same venue only two years later.
And then, 32 years after the 1958 flag, Ken Turner’s son, Jamie, would be a part of Collingwood’s 1990 premiership side – as another ground redevelopment at the MCG was underway to replace the one that Ken had worked upon all those years before.