Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

A Sporting Background

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Constructed from 1880 for Melbourne's first International Exhibition in 1882, the building offered extensive floor space with its central aisle and two cross annexes.

After the great Exhibition finally closed its doors,, the trustees of the Buildings were faced with a problem in generating revenue for maintenance and upkeep and along with several other initiatives, a  cycling track was constructed in the grounds to the north of the main building, roughly where today's Museum lies.

The original programme for the Games had gymnastics, wrestling and weightlifting scheduled to be held at the Exhibition Buildings, but by an odd coincidence of two destructive fires, there were a couple of later changes.

Wrestling and Weightlifting (Status Quo)

These two were conducted as planned - platforms for wrestling (two mats, each with four small scoreboards and bouts conducted concurrently) and weightlifting were built under the sunlight central dome over the intersecting aisles.

Temporary stands accommodating about 3,000 were erected in three of the aisles, the fourth (and shortest) for officials and competitors and the press situated above the mats. Because of the layout of the wrestling area, four small scoreboards had to erected so at to be visible to all sections of the public.

Although the Official Games Report makes no mention of it, it is apparent that the weightlifting and wrestling were held in the same area with the facilities, like those for boxing and gymnastics at the West Melbourne Stadium interchanged - weightlifting was held in afternoon and night sessions from 23 to 26 November, then after a day's break, wrestling from 28 November to 6 December, in this case with morning and night sessions (Sundays excepted in both cases).

In weightlifting, actual competitors numbered one hundred and five across the seven weight divisions and represented thirty four countries.  A training site was established at an Army Drill Hall in Hawthorn.

In wrestling, there were 123 entries from 28 countries for free-style events and 110 entries from 20 countries for Greco-Roman. Injuries and withdrawals reduced these numbers to 110 free-style and 85 Greco-Roman, making a grand total of 195 entrants from 30 countries.

There were 180 bouts in free-style wrestling and 138 bouts in Greco-Roman, a total of 318 bouts.

Wrestling was one of the sports that could not be accurately scheduled - rather than time limits imposed in other “martial arts” sports, a bout only ended with a “fall”.  This could entail transport requirements up to 3 a.m. instead of the programmed 11 p.m. conclusion of the programme

Gymnastics (Out)

Early thoughts were for the gymnastics to be held at the Exhibition Buildings, but given weightlifting and wrestling were also to held there, it appears that the O.O.C. opted instead for West Melbourne Stadium after plans for its reconstruction were announced.

Basketball (In)

It was originally planned to host basketball at the Glaciarium, an ice skating venue in City Road just behind today’s Arts Centre, the same venue as proposed for gymnastics.

The site was selected after the Committee inspected the Glaciarium, and St. Moritz (another ice skating rink on the Upper Esplanade, St. Kilda), and an undisclosed site in South Melbourne, probably the site of the later basketball courts at the northern end of Albert Park Reserve and behind MacRobertson Girl’s High School (these were constructed a military transport depot during the Second World War).

In early August, 1956, just seventeen weeks before the Opening Ceremony the Games Chief Executive Officer, Sir William Bridgeford announced a new court clear span roof building, with a floor area 150 feet by 203 feet would be hastily built at the Exhibition Buildings after Glaciarium management demanded £20,000 rental for the use of the site.  

The decision to reconstruct the Exhibition Aquarium site may however have been made some time before the announcement, as the same time it was revealed that a tender had been accepted from builders, Olsen, Foster Constructions at a price of £36,000 with both the O.O.C. and contractors expressing confidence that the new courts will be completed in ample time for the Games, but with the usual rider, “barring any strikes”.

Again, temporary seating was envisaged to allow the area to be used as display space after the Games if required, although it was suggested that the site would become the permanent home of the Victorian Basket Association; prior to the Game, there were five courts within the Exhibition, but these were regularly unavailable during trade shows and the like.  The capacity of the new facility was 3,500, but it was suggested with a build-up of interest in the sport generated by an influx of European migrants that many had to be turned away from night matches.

Fencing : Modern Pentathlon

The fencing events of the modern pentathlon were also held in the rooms on the upper story (balcony) of the main building, additional lighting only having to be provided. There was only standing accommodation for spectators for this one day event - eight pistes were laid and these were also used for training of fencers engaged in the main events at St. Kilda Town Hall - all 36 athletes surviving the rigours of the brutal first day’s ride at Oaklands Junction competed and each had to face off every opponent.

The Party To End All Parties

The Building also hosted the Farewell Party, intended for 8,000 guests from 8 p.m. until midnight on the final day of the Games.  Every visiting official and member of a team was invited to bring a guest. All members of the staff of the Organizing Committee who were working with the organization thirty days before the commencement of the Games were given two tickets.

With many nations by this time having already parted, or in the throes of doing so, the roll-up was given at “more than 4,000”, many of them in tears or close to.

The guests took charge of all sections of the huge building's main floors and balconies and spilled over into an all-nations dance party in its Royale Ballroom”..

What If? …

Given the almost complete lack in Melbourne of indoor venues of a size suitable for hosting Olympic events, the question that must be asked is whether Melbourne could have retained the rights to the Games if perchance the Aquarium fire had in fact spread to the main building?

The O.O.C. would have been in a weak position in its negotiations with the management of the Glaciarium when the decision was made to hold basketball on the new court (perhaps the St. Moritz could have been converted in time).  Wrestling and weightlifting probably would have had to revert to Melbourne Town Hall, the other alternative might have been to split the events to two suburban Town Halls.

It is also highly likely that Ted Waterford’s hopes and plans for a multi-purpose indoor stadium at either Olympic Park or in West Parkville would have received a rather more positive response from the O.O.C., Melbourne City Council and State Government


Playgrounds : The Exhibition Buildings

Boiled fish or roast poultry, but no chips. The fire that destroyed the Exhibition Aquarium on the evening of Wednesday 28 January 1953.  According to the Exhibition Buildings’ history, only a sudden change of wind direction saved the extension of blaze to the Great Hall.

The fire came during a trade convention and caused an estimated £100,000 damage and as well as fears for the main building, there were concerns that the blaze might take hold in the migrant centre next door when trees overhanging the huts caught fire.  Fortunately the last six migrants had left the camp that morning.

A man and his son living opposite the Aquarium managed to kick in a fibro-cement wall and released cockatoos, macaws and peacocks, the seals were swimming in a large pool and were not seriously affected, but nothing could stop the water in the smaller fish exhibits from virtually boiling and none survived.

Northern section of the Exhibition Buildings, 1920 showing (centre) the sports oval, cycle track, stand and a picnic area; War Museum of the left, State Parliament House on the right. This showed the planned expansion of the sporting facilities in 1920.

The position of the grandstand between the track and picnic ground appears to conflict with that shown in Thomas A’Beckett’s photograph of 1899.

The Aquarium was destroyed by fire in January, 1953 and later rebuilt internally with basketball courts for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Above : Two wrestling bouts in progress at the Exhibition Building; spectators top, left and bottom, officials and competitors right.

Below ; Vorobiev (U.S.S.R.), winner of the middle-heavyweight division

Bottom : The basketball annexe




Modern Pentathlon Fencing at the Exhibition: Vena (Romania) and Malta (Brazil).  Cornel Vena remained in Australia after the Games and became a Physical Education teacher, initially in Preston in Melbourne.  He became a legend in Fencing in Australia, especially in Queensland before he died in April, 2017 in Townsville.

  His score of 1,111 in Fencing in Melbourne remains the highest ever in this section of the Pentathlon (the next highest was a Finn Bronze Medallist with 963)