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History

11 Nov 2020

History Image

Southbank and the Olympic Games

By Robin Grow - President, Art Deco and Modernism Society

2020 was supposed to be an Olympic year, due to be held in Tokyo – but the COVID-19 virus forced the games to be deferred. Tokyo had also been scheduled to hold the 1940 Games but WWII put an end to it.

In 1949, Melbourne won the right to hold the 1956 Games, the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a close call and the awarding of the games led to years of political in-fighting and disputes in Melbourne.

Where would the main events be held? The Showgrounds? Albert Park? Princes Park in Carlton? Eventually the MCG (which was always the obvious choice) was selected.

It was a similar story with the swimming and diving pool. The original choice was in Fawkner Park in South Yarra but a backlash from local residents forced a move to Swan St, just across the river from Southbank.

People in Melbourne embraced the Games with a passion and visitors who made the long trip were thrilled with the friendliness of the Australian people. The city was transformed, with an Olympic Village at West Heidelberg, new sports venues (such as Olympic Park, next to the pool), an upgraded airport at Essendon, and upgraded hotels such as Hosies on Flinders St.

In the lead-up to the Games, the people of Melbourne entering the city could not help being taken by a series of pylons and structures placed on major intersections. Designed by members of a panel of leading architects, engineers and industrial designers, they represented the latest in innovative design, materials and technology and some incorporated motifs from indigenous culture.

The striking structures brought colour and brightness to corners of Melbourne, as authorities sought to bring a terrific spectacle of twinkling lights and colourful flags and decorations to the city. For those living in South Melbourne, they passed a large steel-framed torch, nearly 20 metres high, on the corner of Swanston and Flinders streets.

Held in place by cables attached to posts and buildings, it comprised a web-like construction, topped by a metre-high ring of fire, lit by gas pumped into the framework, and lit by floodlights at night.

Nearby, the corner of Alexandra Avenue and St Kilda Rd was brightened by a number of large Spinmobiles, designed by Richard Beck. Standing about 15 metres high, and anchored into concrete, the two tubular steel structures (painted in in high gloss enamel in Olympic colours) were anchored in concrete and revolved on ball bearings and twisted in the wind, producing a kaleidoscopic effect.

For the City of Melbourne, it was a great introduction to a wonderful Games, long regarded as the “Friendly Games” •

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