Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Playgrounds : The Main Stadium Debate

Most people will almost automatically associate much the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games with the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but this was not always the case - the "G" was a relatively late selection as the site for the Main Stadium.

Melbourne's successful bid for the Games was made with a hypothetical proposal for the Main Stadium holding virtually every land-based event to be erected at Royal Agricultural Society's Showgrounds in Ascot Vale.

At the time that the Games were announced, the M.C.G. Trustees suggested that while they would co-operate with the Olympic Organising Committee (O.O.C), they would not be submitting an application to host events, but would be happy to make the ground available for what they termed, "the Pageantry", in other words, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

While the Showgrounds remained the preferred site of the O.O.C. for the Games, it was far from universally popular, many officials of amateur sporting bodies realising the site was outside of their control and may not be available after the Games and preferring the re-development of the somewhat rundown facilities at Olympic Park in Swan Street. In the interim, the O.O.C. inspected other sites - Albert Park, Olympic Park, Fishermen's Bend and the M.C.G.  

Although not permanent, the M.C.G. flirted with athletics with a 100 metre grass track established in 1948 for a special invitation athletics meeting featuring the Dutch champion Fanny Blankers-Koen, then 30 years of age and fresh from winning four gold medals at the London Games and unbeaten for 13 years, but it was the rapidly increasing interest in League football after a rather lackluster period during and immediately after the war that was causing concern.

Tentative plans were put in place to demolish the existing old public grandstand on the northern side and replace it with a new double-decker concrete stand with the ground capacity increased to 150,000 (a figure never seriously approached); the extension required the acquisition with Government approval of four extra acres of parkland.

In days before pre-booked ticketing, admission was “first-some, first-served” and the situation became critical after the 1949 Essendon and Carlton Grand Final where gates were locked by 12.45 and police with batons were forced to defend closed doors;, but hundreds that managed to get inside invaded the oval and took viewing positions behind the boundary line, some even having the effrontery to sprint across the playing area to take up residence in the Members' Stand which typically did not fill until the last moment if at all. (The official attendance figure was 88,718).

On 23 November, Sir Harry Lawton, Chairman of the M.C.G. Trustees in announcing the planned extensions wished the Games every success, but when pressed on details by the O.O.C. reiterated that they would not be seeking the Games.

Lawton's attitude of "co-operation rather than participation" was understandable. Under the original Crown Grant of land of 1853, the Trust had a legal obligation to the Melbourne Cricket Club, the ground "to be at all times maintained and used as for a place to play at Cricket".

Central to the reluctance to become involved was the playing surface; with the natural slope of the area and many years of top-dressing of the central wicket square, the surface dropped by around seven feet from the north-east to the south-west, said to be so severe that in certain places, spectators on one side could not see a fieldsman retrieving a ball from the gutter on the other.

A report prepared by Major General Sir Clive Steele), the Trust's honorary engineer, suggested re-grading the surface would probably mean football and cricket could not be played for two seasons and that it was "problematic" as to whether the ground could be returned to its original condition without the natural drainage the slope provided.

This study was to sway the Trustees against the use of the Ground for over three years, but sadly (and almost catastrophically) it was undertaken in the belief that Olympic standards required the entire surface to be totally flat; whereas this criteria applied only the track, NOT to the ground as a whole.  There is some confusion as to when the Trustees were fully aware of the exact Olympic requirements  one report suggests that Sir Frank Beaurepaire, the Chairman of the O.O.C. did not provide the advice until March, 1950 when the O.O.C. decided the M.C.G. was probably the best site for the Games.

(International athletic requirements permitted a maximum variation in level of 1 in 1,000 in length - in other words, 10 centimetres over a 100-metre track - and 1 in 100 in width).

By February, 1951, the estimate for the Showgrounds stadium was put at £3.5 million with suggestions that it could eventually reach £5 million, a massive amount that required extensive Government funding with many questions being asked as to whether the benefits post-War were to amateur sport or just the Royal Agricultural Society who offered just over £1.1 million which it suggested covered the permanent advantage it would gain, the balance the construction for Games facilities.

The near-riots at the 1949 Grand Final were repeated in 1951 when Geelong played Essendon; gates had to be closed at 12.30 with thousands unable to gain entrances and 70 police assigned to control the crowd had to call for reinforcement, at one having to use seven cars to cordon off one of the gates.

Police, the Trustees and the Health Commission all launched enquiries into the fiasco and come up with the (bleedin') obvious solution that a bigger ground was urgently required, and at a meeting the following week between Prime Minister Robert Menzies and Victorian Premier John McDonald where Menzies declared that no Federal funds would be made available for the Showgrounds, Menzies hinted that "he might help the M.C.G." to stage the Games at a much lower cost.

In November, a conference between the O.O.C and politicians re-examined potential sites - Carlton and St. Kilda cricket grounds, Olympic Park, the University and the M.C.G, but significantly not the Showgrounds - as least three of the M.C.G. Trustees - Lawton, former (and future) Premier John Cain, M.L.C. and the Deputy Leader of the Federal Labor Opposition, the Hon Arthur Calwell, M.H.R. attended, Lawton still claiming the use of the ground was impractical.

By this time, the O.O.C. had commissioned its own report from a team of engineers, their opinion sharply conflicting with Steele's - "the that the M.C.G. could be quickly brought up to Olympic standards and later restored to its present state".  Now aware of the real requirements, a second study conducted by another M.C.G. Trustee and engineer, David McClelland confirmed the O.O.C.’s report.

Emphasizing that the surface "need not be perfectly level'', the O.O.C. presented alternative proposals for re-grading to the Trustees, but again met with a rebuff, the Trustees deciding in January, 1952 that "it would not be in the best interests" of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the Victorian Football League and the Victorian Cricket Association to proceed with proposals to host the Game.

The Trustees were granted their additional parkland, although only one-and-half acres rather than the four hoped for (perhaps the reason for the dramatically reduced capacity from 150,000 mooted to 104,000 authorized by the Health Commission when the new stand finally opened).

By this time, with the Showgrounds definitely out of the pictures, Carlton was the preferred option; Princes Park was administered to the Melbourne City Council with powers delegated to club Presidents, Kenneth Luke (football) and Frank Williams (cricket).

The plans for a vastly expanded stadium also had the tacit support of "sections" of the V.F.L.  - for ever the "junior partner" at the M.C.G. and keen to establish a headquarters of its own and prepared to invest in the Carlton project; "sections" perhaps suggesting that the plan may not have had the full support of Dr. William McClelland, caught in an invidious position as Chairman of both the V.F.L. and the Melbourne Cricket Club. (Then Sir Kenneth, Luke took over the V.F.L. presidency from McClelland in 1956 after being Vice-President from 1946 to 1955).

In August, 1952, following the death of Sir Harry Lawton, Calwell was elected Chairman of the M.C.G. Trustees, on which he had been serving since 1931.  In October, he presented plans for the ground expansion to Melbourne Cricket Club members seeking advice on their priorities, but leaving the question of finance to the members - when construction finally commenced, membership was 6,200 and would be increased 9,800; there was a waiting list of over 17,700 with over 10,000 of them juniors.

In November, 1952, another engineering study by Steele and McClelland based on the now-understood premise that the surface did not have to be completely flat suggested that the ground could in fact be returned to its original state if the O.O.C.’s recommendation of the “inverted saucer” principle where the perimeters of the surface were raised and the centre wicket area left untouched was used (the method was already on trial at South Melbourne).

In December, the Labor Government under Cain was elected after three years nominally in Opposition, but during which it had supported the Country Party against the Liberal Party.   

A highly ambitious plan for a Stadium at Carlton was now in place, now to seat 125,000 and with a cost estimate over £2.5 million to be half-funded by the Federal Government with the balance split between the State and the Melbourne City Council, but it was well-known Cain was vehemently opposed to spending money on Games facilities while housing shortage remained critical.

Building at Carlton was due to commence in mid-January, but following the first full Cabinet meeting, Cain called an immediate cease to work, prominently displaying his displeasure two days later when a security fence was erected around the site.

Cain had been a Trustee of the M.C.G. for over a decade and around a week after the cancellation of the project at Princes Park, it was revealed that Cain had approached the secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club Vernon Ransford with a request that the club co-operate in making the M.C.G. available for the Games

Ransford secured the unanimous support of his committee and subsequently on 26 January, two senior club representatives  were asked to wait during a key meeting between Menzies, the State Government, Melbourne councillors and the O.O.C. to discuss in part a move by Belgian Government to have the Games switched to Brussels, the pair were subsequently advised that the meeting had affirmed plans to hold the Games at the M.C.G.

Complete agreement of the use of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and an immediate start to extensions was reached at the Premier’s Conference on 30 January, subject only to the Prime Minister’s formal approval on the following Monday of the Federal Government’s half-share of £1.25 million guaranteed funding in conjunction with State and Melbourne Council.  It was said that the Victorian Cricket Association was “did not like the idea of murdering the turf”, but might relent if it was guaranteed that the  ground would be back to normal as soon as the Games were over; the Victorian Football League expressed no concerns provided the ground was available for finals.

With the cricket club now firmly in favour of the Games, the Trustees proceeded with the planned extensions, test drilling starting almost immediately.

Three days later, it was announced that architect Arthur W. Purnell and Associates had been appointed to prepare plans and sketches for a grandstand increasing ground capacity by a nett 32,000 to nominally 119,000, the construction to be financed by cricket club members, with some £300,000 required in the short term and a similar amount prior to completion.   860 feet long and 81 feet high, the stand had seating of four levels - ground, first, second and an open roof deck.

Eventually after State Government assurances were given, the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society agreed to provide a loan £550,000 for the project. Calwell suggested that even with the increase in membership, it could take 50 years to erase the debt.

The contract was eventually awarded to E. A. Watts Pty Ltd to the lowest tenderer at £535,975, the same company who had earlier been the contractor at Carlton and also built the Southern Stand at the M.C.G. in the late 1930's. Work commenced in March, 1954 with an estimated completion time of 18 to 20 months, meaning a loss of 8,000 to 10,000 seats for the 1954 football season ; the highest tender was £648,000.

A further engineering study by McClelland established plans for the re-grading, drainage and laying of the foundations of running tracks, including one of 400 metres.

Tt was decided by the cricket club committee in conjuction with the O.O.C. somewhat controversially that M.C.C. members would have to give up their rights during the Games, but would receive priority and discounts when booking tickets, this apparently after Arthur Coles, one of the Australian Olympic Federation’s two representatives to the International Olympic Federation suggested the I.O.F. would not tolerate members retaining their rights as it would the loss in sales of up to 25,000 tickets per day and a potential loss of £500,000 in revenue.

For many Melburnians, their last sighting of the elegant, old grandstands came during the Royal Tour of February, I 1954 where one gathering of 43,000 returned servicemen and another of over 92,000 schoolchildren, parents and teachers welcomed the Royal couple.

The construction of the stand predictably had a few problems.

In October, 1954 two key unions, the Building Workers' Industrial and the Builders' Laborers' Unions went on strike following a demarcation dispute, members of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners also refusing to do work allotted to them because they claimed it required assistance of the builders' laborers.  The industrial action lasted around a month, the effects complicated by a dock strike in England which held up supplies of British cement and steel.

By July, 1955, it was suggested that the stand was only 25% completed after 14 months, and the Trustees in conjunction with E. A. Watts were forced to introduce a six-day working week, adding another £20,000-plus to the cost.  Cement shortages further delayed the project early in 1956, but work was completed in time for the 1956 football finals.

After the 1955 football season, work on the re-grading commenced, thousands of yards of the prized Merri Creek soil was removed and replaced with red mountain soil from Lilydale, new drainage pipes installed and foundations for the running track laid and covered with turk to be taken up and replaced with an en-tout-cas track imported from England following the 1956 season.  Fortunately, there was no international cricket tour during the summer and Victoria's Sheffield shield matches were transferred to the Junction Oval as St. Kilda

With a brand-new grandstand, M.C.G. and football organizers must have believed that their problems were over, but an unfortunate decision taken by Arthur Calwell resulted in chaos paralleling the 1949 and 1951 Grand Finals.

Finals to this stage had been on a "first come, first served" basis, but O.O.C. officials were keen that with the new seating, as a dress rehearsal, admission should be by pre-booked ticket, the system put in place for the Olympics more than 12 months before.

Calwell vetoed the idea, maintaining the existing system, the wisdom was immediately under a cloud when more than 94,000 crammed into the ground for the Collingwood-Footscray Preliminary Final, but that was a drop in the ocean the following week when the official attendance was given as just over 116,000 turned out for the Melbourne-Collingwood Grand Final.

Entrances were progressively closed from 12.45 p.m. with thousands of people rushing from gate to gate to try and gain admission. One gate was crashed when it was opened slightly to allow entry of the Military Band and again the game went ahead with hundreds inside the fence and similar numbers perched 80 feet above the ground on the concrete “pill-boxes” over the stairs to the roof of the new stand.  Queues for toilets were 100 yards long, and many, concerned for their and their family’s safety attempted to leave but were frustrated by the locked gates.

Many commentators suggested that the official crowd estimate was several thousands below the true figure, the actual number almost certainly exceeding the 119,000 at the 1926 Melbourne Cup, then the  largest congregation in Melbourne's history.

After the chaos settled, there were still several tasks still before the O.C.C. - the laying of the en-tout-cas track, extensive modification to the scoreboard, alterations to dressing rooms, press facilities, installation of 45 to 50 broadcasting points, communications systems, and the newest of the new, provision of television camera facilities.

In Retrospect

Perhaps the strangest part of the eight-year saga was that the complete turn-around in attitude of the Melbourne Cricket Club and the M.C.G. Trustees came within a week of John Cain's rejection of the Princes Park in Carlton - admittedly the many years Cain spent as a Trustee of the ground would have given him a strong personal influence, but it seems many of those previously against the Games being stage at the M.C.G. may have just been starting to come to grips with the international significance of the Olympic Games.

Early attitudes may well have been influenced by the 1948 London Olympics, the first following the Second World War - while moderately successful, they became known as the "Austerity Games" with no ne venues constructed and athletes housed in existing accommodation at the Wembley area instead of an Olympic Village.  In addition, for Australians, news from the Games, held between 29 July and 14 August clashed with Bradman's "Invincibles" cricket tour of England, again the first since the War.

The other big “unknown” was almost certainly the lack of understanding of the International Olympic Federations’ requirements when the Steele’s initial survey of the ground was undertaken and use for the Games rejected - whether this was a result of Steele’s failure to investigate or of the O.O.C. in providing the data will never be known.

The other possible explanation was that with several European and American cities now claiming that they were ready, willing and able to host the Games, the Melbourne Cricket Ground might just have been a case of "last resort" with both the Trustees and the Melbourne Cricket Club committee pervaded by the thoughts of guilt over Melbourne becoming the first and last city to both win and then lose the Olympics!