The news that Betty Cuthbert, one of Australia’s ‘Golden Girls’ in the 1956 and subsequent Olympics, had died, took me instantly to a time and place in my life. I was nine, and living in Gwalia, in the North-eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. Mr. Reilly was the headmaster at the State School. I loved being at school. Beria had taken me out of the convent because I was not being taught fast enough.
The wireless was a major part in our school lessons. The ABC, in conjunction with the Education Department, produced and broadcast weekly singing, health and hygiene, folk dancing and literature and history lessons. It was almost the end of the school year when the Olympic Games in Melbourne commenced on 23 November 1956. Remembering that Western Australia is two-hours behind the Eastern States, by the time school started at 9 o’clock the Olympics in Melbourne – which was the other side of the world for me were underway. Written lessons were set aside and for two weeks we gathered around the classroom wireless, listening, as we marbled paper, using paint floating on water, and made Christmas cards, leather purses and cane baskets.
Track and field competitors, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland, Marjorie Jackson, Marlene Mathews, Fleur Mellor, and Norma Crocker were household names. On the day one of the track-and-field girls won a gold medal they went to work in the morning with their running gear packed in a bag. At lunchtime the employer allowed them to go off to the MCG and compete in the running race. The following morning she was back at the typewriter – catching-up on the work she should have done on the previous afternoon while she was away winning a gold medal. That’s how it was in the days before athletes became professionals. Sport was a different game – so to speak. Athletes competed for the love of it and for the honour of representing their country. They were not paid. To help with major competitions, families organised fundraisers for them. Local communities did their bit to make sure their champion had a chance at winning a medal. Never did an elite athlete complain of being bored, or saying they were only doing it for the money!
It is strange how fact and fiction become clouded in one’s mind. I was certain the four golden girls in the 1956 Olympics were Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland, Marlene Mathews and Marjorie Jackson. In fact, the team was Cuthbert, Strickland, together with Fleur Mellor and Norma Crocker. If am to be honest, I had forgotten the names of Mellor and Crocker. It was only on checking that I was reminded.
It was at the 1956 Australian National Championships, prior to the Melbourne Olympic Games, that John Landy, who was competing in the Mile finals, stopped and went back to help fellow Australian, Ron Clarke, who had fallen on the track after another runner had clipped his heel. Landy went on to win the race by a country mile – even though he had sacrificed the chance of a world record.
Those who were around will never forget ‘the blood in the water polo match’ at the 1956 Olympics when tensions between the Hungarians and the Russians boiled-over. The September Hungarian student uprising against the Russian occupation had been suppressed when, on November 4th, 1956, 200,000 Russian troops rolled into the country. They used air strikes, artillery bombardments, and tank-infantry actions. The 4th of November was a Sunday. Monday, 5th of November was second day of the local racing meeting in Leonora. A big day on the social calendar! I went with my sister, Nita, and her fiancé, Italo. The constant talk of the Russian invasion unsettled me. We had Hungarian neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Grodziskie, and I thought they would have to go home to fight a war. I do not recall listening to the famous women’s relay in which Betty Cuthbert, who was the final baton carrier, streaked home to victory.
Ms. Cuthbert was a four-time Olympic gold medallist, winning three at the 1956 Melbourne games in the 100-metres, 200-metres and 4×100 metres relay events. She competed in the 1960 Rome Games but suffered an injury and was eliminated from the heats of the 100-metres, announcing her retirement from track and field shortly afterwards. However, she made her comeback at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth. I was at school and saw her run at the Perry Lakes Stadium. Subsequently, she went to the 1964 Tokyo Games where she won her fourth Olympic gold medal in the 400-metres. She was a torch bearer at the opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympic Games. Ms. Cuthbert was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and Raelene Boyle agreed to push Betty’s wheelchair into the arena. Later, she told me it took a great deal of effort. Raelene was, at the time, having her own health problems. In her athletics career Cuthbert set sixteen-world records and he record is beaten only by Ian Thorpe. The medals used in Melbourne were the standard design first used at the Amsterdam Games in 1928. They were not placed around the athletes’ necks at the medal ceremony as they are now – instead they were presented in cream velvet-lined cases. None of the medals were individualised in any way. Nor did they have the name of the event or even the sport engraved on them; only the words ‘XVIth Olympiad Melbourne 1956’.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.