Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

The Olympic Park reserve of 22 acres was Crown Land, originally Melbourne's first zoological gardens but converted to the Friendly Societies Ground after the Yarra was re-directly to the south in the late 1970's

Before government-provided welfare became the norm, "friendly societies" were community groups (often "lodges") to which every day citizens contributed in turn for protection against medical expenses or unemployment.

The combined societies used the ground for picnics and sports days, but with the rapid growth of Melbourne and suburb and the availability of alternative venues, the central location fell into disuse, and in 1924, part of site was leased to the noted ex-totalizator operator and entrepreneur John Wren and Stadiums Limited who erected a steeply-banked concrete track for motor cycle racing and known as the Motordrome at a cost estimated at £40,000.

Following a couple of fatal accidents and a drop in public interest, motor cycling was abandoned, but the central area was large enough to host football matches and the Victorian Football Association held their finals there in the early 1930s. The Melbourne Football Club also played a few games there when the M.C.G. was unavailable.

Remaining portions of the grounds continued to be used for State and high school sports; amateur athletics and other sports, including cricket,: football, tennis, baseball and lacrosse.

After Wren's lease expired in 1941, the Motordrome was taken over by the Defence Department and used for athletics and other sports (the Trustees at one point in 1942 offering it the Victorian Football League for the finals when it became known the M.C.G. would not be available.

By the time that the Games were being mooted post-war, the site was regularly being described as an eyesore and had fallen into a state of advanced disrepair, the track still functional, but with few spectator facilities.  Reports show it being used for soccer, hockey and baseball.

The athletics section upgraded in 1950 with the installation of two cinder tracks - 120 yards down the grandstand side and 440 yards with an 80 yard straight, first permanent cinder track in Australia, but suffered a major blow with the destruction of the 1,500 seat grandstand in a fire on 16 March, 1951

The Construction Committee decided to re-develop the entire area; plans included a swimming and diving centre (originally proposed for Fawkner Park), a cycling track (the Velodrome), and separate soccer and hockey arenas.  The project was announced early in October, 1953, pending "almost certain Commonwealth Government and Melbourne City Council approval”.

The cost was put at £500,000 - significantly by the time the official approvals were granted in late November, the total mentioned was £575,000. No explanation for the sudden jump was given at the time, but it may well have been the inclusion of the hockey pitch - the original programme released in November, 1953 had the events being played on “local grounds”.  Hopes were that the pool by February, 1956, cycle track and training tracks, by. September, 1955, and the running track and sports oval by October.

Preliminary work of the project started in February, 1954 with the removal of old trees and builings at the west end, the swimming pool site.

A minor hiccup came in May, 1954 when the State Government announced that it was replacing the 16-man management committee of Olympic Park with a new 11-man Trustee under the chairmanship of Cr. P."Les" Coleman, the Minister for Transport and also the chairman of the Construction Committee.

Predictably, the move which the Government claimed was not political, but simply to allow streamlined planning raised the hackles of several existing officials, Bill Uren claiming it was in fact a State political move, Edgar Tanner suggested the new Trustee "was not representative of amateur sport", while Prime minister Menzies wisely refused to comment.

The Olympic Pool

The design of the Olympic Pool was opened to competition in October, 1952, the winner selected in December as plans submitted by the Melbourne architects Messrs. Boland, McIntyre and Murphy (the latter in conjunction with his wife, also an archtect) incorporating a revolutionary cantilever design with the roof supporting the angled side-walls rather than the reverse and considered a world-first. The Melbourne firm of McDougall & Ireland Pty. Ltd. were announced the successful tenderers by the Olympic Construction Committee in May, 1954 with a quote of £292,000, the lowest of five and the company was noted as having just completed the Degraves Street subway under Flinders Street - it was noted that all tenders for the pool (electrical and mechanical services, filtration systems) had then been let at a cost of £341,000, compared to an earlier estimate of about £300,000.

A month prior to the building contracts being awarded, a tender of £41,608 was accepted from Roche Bros, of Melbourne for earthworks and drainage - the latter became a serious problem when in a cost-saving measure the Construction Committee reduced the number of agricultural pipes, with the result that the surfaces were flooded several times in the weeks leading up to the Games. Fortunately Melbourne’s normally changeable late Spring weather remained fine throughout the two weeks except for a few showers on the morning of the Closing Ceremony.

The Olympic Pool  could seat around 5,500 - the demand for tickets was such that the O.O.C. could have used a much bigger building had it been available even several training session were held in front of a capacity crowds, but cost of construction and little likelihood of large crowds at swimming and diving events post-Games were the limiting factors in the decision.

The first building to be completed in the 1956 Olympic Games construction programme, the caretaker's cottage at Olympic Park was handed over 22 April, 1954 - the building, obviously of prefabricated concrete materials (as were most at the Olympic Village in Heidelberg) was completed in 13 working days by the Housing Commission and its stark appearance was described by many as “official vandalism”.

Whether "amateur sport" gained much from the Pool is a matter for conjecture; as early as mid-1955 when the venue was only partly constructed, Olympic Park Trustees announced that it would not be available to the public, the secretary suggesting that no public swimming pool in Australia had ever shown a profit.

It was suggested that it would be made available for hire for championship carnivals, but not on a long-term basis, with plans to cover the pool with a moveable platform for basketball and as a concert stage hosting an audience of 5,000. (At least part of the moveable section was already in place by the time the Games were held with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra performing a concert of chamber music an a platform erected over the diving pool as part of the Fine Arts program attached to the Games.

The Velodrome

The Velodrome also had its share of controversy when in March, 1955, the construction committee reversed an earlier decision to build the track to the Olympic standard of 333 1/3 metres (three laps per kilometre which the measurement system used for all Olympic events, or equating to 5 laps to the mile), instead reducing it to 250 metres or about six laps to the mile, said to be ideal for professional sport.

The Amateur Cycling Association of Australia voiced allegations that the decision came after the appointment of a professional promoter to the committee and who had plans to lease the facility after the Games; both it and the sports’ international body, the Union Cycliste International also objected to the proposed board track, instead demanding it cement or concrete, but conceded that if construction of the reduced track had gone too far, it would accept the 250 metre alternative.

Eventually the standard size track was installed after the International federation withdrew its approval of the 250 metre alternative; the surface became a compromise, of wooden construction but with a cement surface after a Melbourne engineer demonstrated a method of spraying cement onto the New Zealand pine board track. The result was said at the time to probably be the fastest track in the world.  

The Velodrome at the time of the Games featured a permanent stand accommodating 4,400 and a temporary stand with another 3,500 seats - ticket sales figures published after the Games suggest that the stadium was close to full at every session, the total sales to the public averaging 7,200. Original estimates placed the likely cost of construction at £125,000, but after a four-month delay because of the disagreement, the total cost was said to be £174,000.

Football and Hockey Stadia

Given that the size of the fields used for both football (the term officially used throughout the Games) and hockey are smaller, there were probably any number of suburban grounds catering for Australian Rules and/or cricket could well have been used for the preliminary rounds - both Princes Park in Carlton and the Junction Oval at St, Kilda had catered for finals crowds of 50,000-plus when the M.C.G. was unavailable during the war, both the O.O.C. with the land freely available including both sports in the Olympic Park complex.

Perhaps central to this decision was the need to provide training facilities for the Games  themselves and then post-war as the facilities for athletics at the M.C.G. were obviously temporary.

The decision was made to install an Olympic standard six-lane cinder track at Olympic Park, to be used for training purposes prior to and during the Games and to be maintained as a world-class facility for future generations, and with the central area of sufficient size to accommodate the preliminary rounds of the football.

The football and athletic training track could seat 3,000 in the stand, but accommodated another 37,000 on the terraces.

With the crowded schedule of events, a separate hockey pitch was also established with rather fewer facilities as little significant use was envisaged after the Games; it featured a small stand seating 1,050 in twelve tiers at an estimated cost of £33,717 and banked terraces for 20,000 standing room patrons.   The hockey field was laid with grass tracks to handle the overflow of some 1,500 amateur athletes who competed each Saturday. One suggestion had the venue as "ideal for Amateur football in winter"; an early diagram when the complex upgrade was announced also showed tennis courts, but there is nothing to suggest they were seriously considered.

In reality, while most of the cycling sessions saw a full house, the football averaged just over 6,000 with the highest just on 12,000; the hockey attracted just one crowd of over 1,500; but both arenas were described as potentially significant assets for Melbourne’s future sporting prospects.  The hockey crowds were perhaps the most disappointing for Olympic officials - the post-Games reports suggest over 30,000 programmes were made available to the public, but only a little over 16,000 actually sold.

Twelve teams competed after Holland, one of the leading nations withdrew, causing a re-drawing of the fixture with three preliminary groups of four teams. India, who ranked No. 1 after the Dutch withdrawal defeating Pakistan (ranked 3) in the final, 1-nil.

This like the football final was played at the M.C.G. before much larger crowds, but contemporary reports suggested that the size of the Main Stadium detracted from the spectacle with the crowds too far away from the action.

No. 2 Oval was later used by the Victorian Hockey Association in summer and the the Victorian Amateur Football Association in winter - the latter were forced to abandon use of the facility after the Olympic Park Trustees accepted on offer in 1962 by the Melbourne Greyhound Racing Association to establish a track and improve the grandstand after the Melbourne City Council considerably increased the rental on their original track which enclosed the playing surface at North Melbourne Football Club’s oval at Arden Street.

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Playgrounds : The Olympic Park Complex

The Olympic Park complex

From top : S(wimming); F(ootball; H(ockey); C(ycling) and T(ransport Hub)

Below : The unique cantilever design of the Olympic Pool - as Father said to an incredulous eight-year-old at the “it’s the only building in the world where the roof holds the walls up and not the other way round”!

Bottom : Carnage at the ‘Drome. What was described as the only really bad fall occurred in the third repechage of the 2000 metres Tandem event between Germany and U.S.S.R.  Both pairs fell heavily and the Russians were unable to continue due to their injuries.

Above : A Germany player slips the ball past a Russian defender during their first round match at Olympic Park

Below : Hockey (Great Britain and Northern Ireland (white) versus Australia

The Olympic Pool and soccer stadium under construction; the six-lane cinder track yet to be laid,

Below : The Pool construction, March, 1956

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Anything in Melbourne with John Wren’s name attached was big news.

The Sun News Pictorial front page December 20th, 1924.

https://www.oldbikemag.com.au/the-murder-drome/

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