Heidelberg’s Olympic Village : 1952-56

Heidelberg’s Olympic Village : `1952-56

After more than 12 months of lobbying, Melbourne was awarded the right to host the 1956 Olympic games on 29 April, 1949 at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee held in Rome. [A]

It was far from a clear-cut decision, in fact the narrowest of margins – after a fourth ballot. Melbourne was selected with 21 votes to Buenos Aires, Argentine, 20. How the Games were won

The parties and celebrations lasted just 48 hours before day-to-day rivalries came to the surface.

Melbourne was in the grip of a housing crisis with war-time rationing of building materials still not lifted and many critics suggested that there were higher construction priorities than facilities to showcase the Games.

There was far from consensus as to just where the main stadium would be located – plans for reconstruction of a slum area around the Showgrounds had been an integral part of the promotion of Melbourne leading up to the decision, but just three days after the announcement, Edgar – later Sir Edgar Tanner [1] of the Australian Olympic Federation declared that the Government had no right to interfere if the Federation wanted an alternative site.

(A straw poll of athletes and sporting administrators following Tanner’s objections produced a range of alternatives – a few favouring the Showgrounds scheme, of which one, Dick Lean, manager of Stadiums Limited suggested “… this site is best for accommodation, but not necessarily best for public convenience. I suppose the Heidelberg area, would be as good as anywhere”; others suggested Albert Park or reconstruction of the dilapidated Olympic Park.

Strangely, none of around ten canvassed mentioned the ultimate and most logical site, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but we have no way of knowing whether the question was open to any response or just selected from a limited number of options. [2]

As well as track and field events, the original Showgrounds plan included a swimming pool (proposed to be converted to a store-room post-Games), and pavilions as accommodation centres – but the housing was described as “makeshift” with competitors living in what would become stalls for Show exhibits (hopefully not the livestock pavilions!). It was also suggested that athletes would have uncomfortable in the extreme so close to the large crowds when events were held.

Planning in earnest for the Olympic Village commenced immediately after the 1952 Helsinki Games; by this time, the Showgrounds proposal had been abandoned in favour of a new, purpose-built stadium in Princes Park, with the Olympic Swimming Pool planned for Fawkner Park.

it was estimated 600 three-bedroomed houses would be required. In September, 1952; Australia’s two representatives on the International Olympic Committee Mr. Arthur – later Sir Arthur [3] – Coles and his deputy chairman Mr. Ken Luke – later Sir Kenneth Luke [4] – admitted that it was impossible to estimate how many athletes would visit Melbourne, but suggested that a village to accommodate 5,000 needed to be established “on about 80 acres within about six miles of the Carlton stadium”. (It is worth noting that at previous Games, the number of arrivals had almost always exceeded estimates, but the reverse was the case in Melbourne following the late withdrawal of 13 countries). [5]

They also suggested that probably no more than 10,000 overseas visitors would venture to Melbourne, noting that Helsinki made provision for 40,000, but only half that number attended. [6]

Without making any specific recommendation, Coles envisaged opening up the village in a new area, possibly to tie in with industrial requirements in the “near” outer suburbs with later conversion to public housing. He suggested houses he inspected during manufacture in Britain could be provided in about 18 months at reasonable cost. “We would need about 600 of this “double unit” type (three bedrooms) to house 6000 athletes and officials”. (Sporting Globe 17 September, 1952)

With the disputes continuing over the sporting sites, there seems to have been little public discussion over where the Olympic Village to accommodate the athletes would be constructed.

The availability of an 80-acre site of public land within reasonable proximity of the proposed Carlton complex would have had severely restricted options, but around the time of the Globe article, The Argus’ sporting columnist Kew Moses let the cat out of the bag, heading his column “Why keep it quiet?”

“HEIDELBERG citizens will wake up one morning soon and find they are the proud parents of 600 new, ultra-modern houses.

“Because Heidelberg is going to be the home of the Olympic Village for the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

“And with the Olympic Village out that way it is likely that there might be a few cinders tracks thrown about on Warringal Park for visitors to use for training. Might also be a good idea for the Heidelberg City Council to start building an Olympic Pool. And quite a few of the local shops can turn overnight from being purveyors of the necessities of life to dispensers of souvenir koala bears and mulga boomerangs”.

The Melbourne Games were under serious threat around two months later – in January, 1953, newly elected Premier John Cain (senior) [7] reiterated that the State Government “will not provide a penny more than £312,500”, the figure agreed in March, 1952. Mr. Coles response : “Make up your minds, otherwise Chicago is ready to step in and take the Games from us” At one point, IOC President Avery Brundage suggested that Rome, which was to host the 1960 Games, was so far ahead of Melbourne in preparations that it might be ready as a replacement site in 1956.

Figures quoted by Cain showed that the estimated cost of the new main stadium in Princes Park was 200% more than the amount estimated in March of the previous year. The bombshell then dropped – few days later, Cain announced:-


Premier Says Expense is Unnecessary

The Premier (Mr. Cain) announced yesterday that he had rejected the proposal that an Olympic village, to cost thousands of pounds, should be erected at Heidelberg to house athletes who would take part in the 1956 games.

Mr. Cain said figures this work was unnecessary. Chairman of the Organising Committee, Mr. Kent Hughes had arranged that the 3,000 athletes would be house in the University of Melbourne and lecture rooms would be available for meetings”.

Despite their political differences, Cain approached the Australian Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) asking for a conference to re-examine the cost of staging the Games (it probably should be pointed out that under the Olympic charter, the Games were technically of no concern of either Cain or Menzies – they are awarded to a city, not a state or country).

Cain also insisted all work on the Carlton site cease and expressed his annoyance that erection of a security fence around the site was continued the previous day. He refused to comment on the possibility of the Melbourne Cricket Ground becoming the main stadium if the Carlton project failed through a lack of finance.

He suggested that in 1952, Mr. Kent Hughes, [8] chairman of the Melbourne Olympics Organizing Committee) had submitted “checked” figures stating that the Carlton site would cost £547,000, the swimming pool £200,000, the cycling stadium £120,000, and contingencies £80,000 (with no mention of the Olympic Village, apparently because it was assumed that any costs would be covered by the accommodation reverting to public housing). The then Premier Mr McDonald [9] and the Prime Minister agreed to raise the estimate to £1,250,000 to cover rising costs – at the time of Cain’s veto, the estimated cost of the new main stadium alone was £1,500,000.

By March, 1953, The Age was reporting that little hope was being held that the 1956 Games would be held in Melbourne – Cain was still refusing to condone Heidelberg as the site for a Village, the University was now considered woefully inadequate and the last-ditch alternative being considered was for the Defence Department to evacuate some 3,000 military and civilian workers from the Albert Park Barracks and re-house them elsewhere, a move which required the full approval of the Federal Cabinet.

A crucial meeting of the International Olympic Committee was scheduled in Mexico City on April 17 – Coles warned bluntly that given Cain’s obstinance, Melbourne would be “out” for the Games if Albert Park was not available, suggesting that rather than Chicago as earlier suggested, the Games would go to Rome, Philadelphia or Mexico “in that order of precedence”.

In the interim, on 18 March, it was announced in Canberra that the Federal Government would not allow the use of Albert Park barracks as a village.

Mr. Menzies said: “We are not prepared to give the Olympic Games priority over the defence effort of this country. The Federal Government greatly values having the Olympics in Australia, and would regard as foolish anything which prevented the Games being held, but in a time of international tension, the Albert Park barracks are part of the defence effort.”

After two days of negotiation, it was agreed that the Federal Government would bring forward £2 million of its 1957 housing grant as an interest-free loan to Victoria in the financial years ending 30 June, 1955 and 1956.

Finally on 24 March, The Argus page 1 headline announced “Heidelberg will be the place for a Village” – despite being bailed out by the Federal Government , but perhaps somewhat miffed at being edged out of the loop, Cain refused to discuss the offer, instead expressing resentment that Menzies had announced the decision to the Press before official notification was received by the Victorian Government.

The Argus was a little presumptive in its announcement – the federal offer did not nominate a site for the Village, although it was suggested that it would have been reluctant to finance an alternative proposed scheme of slum-clearance in Carlton. Mr William Barry, [11] the Health Minister and M.L.A. for the area continued to push the Carlton location with the backing of the Melbourne City Council who offered £500,000 towards the project.

The site at Heidelberg was confirmed by 11 votes to three at a Cabinet meeting on 21 September, 1953.

Plans “in principle” were approved by the Olympic Games Construction Committee at the end of October – the 77-acre area bounded by Liberty Parade, Dougharty, Oriel and Southern road was to include three ovals with training tracks, but the chairman of the Committee, (Cr. Coleman, M.L.C.) warned that the area selected “was probably the worst residential land in Melbourne”, unsewered and without water, electricity, and gas, and that it was extremely urgent that these services be given a sufficiently high priority to permit an early start of construction.

There was a suggestion at this stage that temporary buildings or marquees would be used for kitchens, change-rooms, and shower-rooms and hot-baths (probably because there would be little use for them after the site reverted to public housing).

Plans were approved by Heidelberg City Council and announced at a function at Heidelberg Town Hall at a function on 1 April, 1954, the Council earlier announcing plans to build a £50,000 Olympic Pool within a mile of the Games site:-

“There will be 43 single houses, 374 semi-detached houses, 78 treble houses, 107 row houses in units of four and six, 88 two-story quartet dwellings, each with individual entrances; 42 single-person fiats and 56 two-bedroom two-story flats; none of them temporary”. (It was suggested that the single-person flats were considered desirable for later use by elderly persons who lived alone).

Later reports suggested the site ultimately occupied 147 acres, including three training tracks and an annex, their surrounds, 11 kitchens and dining halls, recreation hall, reading rooms and a dance hall and cinema, the latter built by Heidelberg City Council at a cost of £45,000, towards which the Olympic Organising Committee contributed £18,500. There were 841 units built and during the Games, the Housing Commission announced 39 single units, 260 pair units and 150 maisonette (multi-flat) units would be released for sale after Heidelberg Council’s insistence that each met a minimum size allotment.

The plans for temporary “utility” facilities was by this time sensibly abandoned – it was suggested that only nine buildings would not comply with building regulations, but only in minor details, and administrative buildings would be designed to be converted later to housing.  A high-wire fence was to surround the area with only one entrance, in Southern Road.

Construction started on 18 May, 1954 with the Board of Works commencing to lay water mains in the area; some four miles of drains were required at a cost of £115,000 before above-ground work started, then expected in three months, but ultimately delayed until mid-September.

(Given the major emphasis on modern Australian teams appears to be as much as anything the quality and number of free condoms distributed to participants, and despite a ten-foot high wire fence both around the Village and between the segregated men’s and womens’s quarter, the 1956 Games saw one highly publicised romance – between tha American hammer-thrower, Harold Connelly and Czechoslovakian discus thrower Olga Fikotova – both gold medallists in their event and later married in Prague).

Further plans were approved the following month by the Government for a nine-acre shopping centre to be erected in the Bell Street-Oriel Road section of the Housing Commission’s Heidelberg estate, around a half-mile from the proposed Olympic Village. Built as The Mall and with the Colosseum Hotel – probably because it continued the tradition of throwing Christians to the lions! [10]

Although perhaps not quite within the above timeframe, there was some further controversy when someone – perhaps Heidelberg Council – opted to name most of the new streets in the Village (and extending south to Bell Street) after Second World War battles in which Australians took part, reservations being raised that some nations may take exception.

As well as the Olympic Village in Heidelberg, the proposed new stadium at Princes Park may have had another short-term advantage for the northern suburbs : there were preliminary plans for the re-opening of passenger services on the old route of the Heidelberg and Reservoir train line through North Fitzroy and North Carlton to service the new stadium.

The line was still used for freight from Spencer Street to a storage depot at the old Fitzroy at the western end of Queen’s Parade – if the plans had materialised, it probably would have meant work renewing the stations at North Fitzroy and North Carlton.


Local historian for Darebin area and sports of all sorts

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