Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Heidelberg : The Place for a Village


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  

It was far from a clear-cut decision - after a fourth ballot  Melbourne was selected with 21 votes to Buenos Aires, Argentine, 20 (ten cities bid, six of them in the United States with all six eliminated by the second round)

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, Edgarlater Sir Edgar Tanner secretary 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, although it is not clear whether the respondents nominated their preference freely or were only offered a limited choice.  

As well as track and field events, the original Showgrounds plan included a swimming pool (to be converted to a storeroom post-Games), and pavilions as accommodation centres - but the housing described as "makeshift" with competitors in what would become stalls for Show exhibits (hopefully not the livestock pavilions)! There were also complaints that the athletes would feel uncomfortable living in such close quarters to the crowds when events were being 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 Arthur – later Sir Arthur  Coles and his deputy chairman Ken Luke - later Sir Kenneth Luke - 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"  

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  

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 pre-fabricated 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 Ken Moses let the cat out of the bag, heading his column "Why keep it quiet?" (his regular by-line)

"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, Premier John Cain (senior) 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"

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 (Robert - later Sir Robert 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, Wilfred - later Sir Wilfred Kent-Hughes, 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 John - later Sir John McDonald 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 obstinacy, 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

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 “Big Bill” Barry 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 Roads was to include three ovals with training tracks, but the chairman of the Committee, Cr  P “Les” 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.

The work was, for the most part, the responsibility of the Olympic Construction Committee, under the chairmanship of Coleman, a city business man and Melbourne City Councillor, who formerly was chairman of the Commonwealth War Salvage Commission.

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)   

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 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

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 (Later known as The Mall and featuring the Colosseum Hotel, a blood-house which continued the Olympic tradition of throwing Christians to the lions!

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

Aerial view from corner of Dougharty Road and Liberty Parade, looking south-west, today’s Olympic Park recreation area top right

Below: The entrance to Olympic Village in Southern Road, opening day

Images of the Olympic Village

  Clockwise from top left : athletes from various countries about to board buses for the main stadium ; autograph hunters at Village entrance (perhaps somewhat staged; the Hungarian team on board their bus; the Village after the Games closed (Hearald-Sun imave); a last-minute cleanup showing single-story units; Australian soldiers march past the newly-raised Danish flag, flying outside the Danish team's quarters at the Olympic Village

Above : The entrance to the Village in Southern Road

Below : The Village, entrance with flags of 16 nations already in residence

From left, the shopping centre and post office; international dining hall, and recreation centre (centre)  The shopping centre remains today in Morseby Court (lower image); the open area remains the “Olympic Village Green” and the recreation centre also survives as a leisure centre; the entrance to the Village now Alamein Road

The Press Centre was outside the Village on Southern Road at the end of the shopping centre (off image), probably the corner of today’s Midway Road although the site is empty now


From top to bottom :

The Olympic Village Post Office (First Day covers were widely sought after by stamp collectors)

The rather sad-looking shopping centre of today, now Moresby Road

A last-minute clean-up at the Village showing some of the single-story units

Australian soldiers march past as part of the handing over of buildings the the Danish delegation

One of the larger two-storey buildings, pictured mid-1980s