Perhaps the MCG’s most famous moment in history was as the main stadium for the 1956 Olympic Games.As November 22, the date of the opening ceremony, drew closer, Melbourne was gripped ever more tightly by Olympic fever. At 3pm the day before the opening ceremony, people began to line up outside the MCG gates. That night the city was paralysed by a quarter of a million people who had come to celebrate.
The MCG had been largely rebuilt for the Games, including construction of the Olympic Stand, and on the day itself 103,000 people filled it to capacity. A young up and coming distance runner was chosen to carry the Olympic torch into the stadium for the opening ceremony.
Although Ron Clarke had a number of junior world records for distances of 1500m, one mile and two miles, he was relatively unknown in 1956. Perhaps the opportunity to carry the torch inspired him because he went on to have a career of exceptional brilliance and was without doubt the most outstanding runner of his day. At one stage he held the world record for every distance from two miles to 20 km.
On that famous day in Melbourne in 1956 the torch spluttered and sparked, showering Clarke with hot magnesium, burning holes in his shirt. When he dipped the torch into the cauldron it burst into flame singeing him further. In the centre of the ground, John Landy, the fastest miler in the world, took the Olympic oath and sculler Merv Wood carried the Australian flag.
The Melbourne Games also saw the high point of Australian female sprinting with Betty Cuthbert winning three gold medals at the MCG. She won the 100m and 200m and anchored the winning 4 x 100m team. Born in Merrylands in Sydney’s west she was a champion schoolgirl athlete and had already broken the world record for the 200m just before the 1956 Games.
By the time the 1956 Olympics came around, Shirley Strickland was a mother of 31 years of age but managed to defend her 80m title, which she had won in Helsinki four years before, winning gold and setting a new Olympic record.
The men did not fare so well. The 4 x 400m relay team, including later IOC Committee member Kevan Gosper, won silver. Charles Porter also won silver in the high jump. Hec Hogan won bronze in the 100m to become the first Australian man to win a medal in a sprint since the turn of the century and despite injury John Landy won bronze in the 1500m. Allan Lawrence won bronze in the 10,000m event.
Apart from athletics, the stadium was also used for the soccer finals, the hockey finals, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and an exhibition game of baseball, which a crowd of 102,000 attended. At the time, it was a world record for a baseball game.
The MCG was also used for another demonstration sport, Australian Rules. The Olympics being an amateur competition meant that only amateurs could play in the demonstration game.A combined team of amateurs from the VFL and VFA were selected to play a state team from the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA). The game was played December 7, 1956 with the VAFA side, wearing white jumpers, green collars and the Olympic rings on their chests, winning easily 81 to 55.
The MCG’s link with its Olympic past continues to this day. Within its walls is the Olympic Gallery which forms part of the Australian Sports Museum in the Olympic Stand.