Olympic Memories Make a Moving Memoir

trace of butterfly on window.jpg

After a few days of almost Spring weather, mercurial Melbourne reminded me it is still officially winter and inadvertently revealed a trace of the past. Above, is an outline which appeared on the kitchen window, of a butterfly sticker removed over two years ago!

The heat generated by the gas heater, plus steam from the pot of sweet potato and lentil soup I was cooking for a Union of Australian Women luncheon, revealed this outline despite the glass being cleaned umpteen times  since the sticker was removed.

I’ve never noticed this outline before (day or night) – a ghostlike skeleton from the past – a reminder of something no longer in existence.

A great metaphor for memoir and life story writing when we never know what memory will pop up or be triggered to write about…

butterfly mark on window.jpeg

I love creative writing and the four classes I’m teaching this year at three neighbourhood houses (Mordialloc, Longbeach Place, and Godfrey Street) enables me to meet many passionate writers and hear their wonderful stories.

If I can encourage and facilitate these stories into print to be widely shared I feel a sense of accomplishment – especially if the stories are from life experiences. This is how we appreciate and learn from each other – and I’m forever amazed at what turns up!

The Olympic Games

School teachers love the Olympics and plan lessons in all subjects around the theme, but I don’t specifically do that in adult classes. However, what a delightful surprise when a student in the Wednesday Life Stories & Legacy class entertained us with her connection to the 1956 Olympic Games held in Melbourne.

postcard melbourne 1956 olympics copy
An unused postcard found in the Croydon house when we migrated here in 1962

Donna, not only wrote about the links she had with the 16th Olympiad but brought in a jar containing part of the famous field finishing line!

olympic turf in a jar

This ‘show and tell’ was in response to previous lessons when we discussed nostalgia and memories. Sometimes in class, an item is mentioned and the whole group gives a collective laugh or sigh and says, “Oh, I remember that” or “I haven’t thought about that in years.”

Think carefully…

Have you an item/relic from days gone by, no longer useful apart from being an oddity? Have a look in drawers and cupboards and write about it before passing it on to the op shop!

Donna turned up with an old chutney jar from the back of her mother’s kitchen cupboard. This jar had a piece of the turf from the finishing line (white chalk barely discernible after more than half a century later), historic in more ways than one!

  • The 16th Olympiad was the first time the Games had been held in Australia, and classed as the ‘Friendly Games’
  • It was the beginning of the tradition whereby all athletes walk into the Closing Ceremony as one group, and not individual countries.

newspaper article 1956 Olympics

The above newspaper clipping featuring Donna’s mother, “Mrs. John Hellier” explains how she was in a position to souvenir such a piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Heather Hellier was the private secretary to Sir William Bridgeford, the chief executive officer of the Olympic Committee. It was her job to put overseas visitors and other dignitaries at ease (notably the Duke of Edinburgh and Australia’s PM Sir Robert Menzies) as well as a host of officials and journalists from all participating countries.

A typical day for Heather included:

  • arranging press conferences with Sir William for Australian and visiting journalists
  • arranging plane tickets and hotel bookings for one of his interstate tours to publicise the Games
  • typing his many speeches
  • dealing with correspondence and telephone calls
  • receiving numerous guests, visitors, and queries
  • assisting planning for official banquets and receptions (before, during and after the Games) including those for Royal guests of honour
  • controlling the steady stream of people paying courtesy calls and business people seeking meetings with Sir William during the Games

 

donna and annie reading stories copy
Donna reading her story while Annie reads a copy of the newspaper article

Donna recalled some of her mother’s conversation about that exciting time when she probably had one of the most prestigious and memorable secretarial positions available.

For my mother , it meant long hours, care for every detail, and constant polite communication, culminating in the Games themselves, which were a well-ordered whirlwind of inspirational efforts, patriotic pride, the honouring of Olympic ideals, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Menzies and even a chat about cycling with the Duke of Edinburgh…

It was frantic but went like clockwork due to all the careful planning.

There were winners and there were losers, heroics, and even bloodshed in the pool as the Cold War managed to enter the Melbourne Olympics, better known from that day to this as The Friendly Games…

… as their feet went over that white chalk line they were as one, no longer divided by country. There were many tears shed as the Olympic flag was taken down, the Olympic Flame extinguished and the athletes left the stadium… 

… my mother was horrified to see the Olympic track being unceremoniously dug up in order for the MCG to host a cricket match… this was almost sacrilegious. Always quick on her feet, she ran downstairs and grabbed two pieces of the chalked turf finishing line – one for herself, and one for  Sir William… 

… that piece of white chalk on Olympic turf had done its job, brought pride and achievement, rewarded hard work, stamina, and sheer guts. Its time in the spotlight under the glare of thousands of photographers’ flash bulbs over. Sad to be gone in physical terms but living on in the history of this country, in the minds and memories of all who saw it, and in film (early TV) and photography.

How lucky to see a tiny piece of that memorable event – even if stored in a chutney jar for 60 years!

olympic turf copy
I tried to capture that faint white line.

After Donna read her story I remembered some memorabilia from previous Olympic Games that are probably quite rare in Australia.

The Moscow Olympics

In 1980, I worked for the Victorian Branch of the  Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union and one of the officials, Frank Brady was fundraising for a close friend going to the Olympic Games in Moscow.

However, Russia had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the USA and other countries decided to boycott the Olympic Games. The country was divided about attending and the angst and controversy of the time a direct contrast to the cute bear who was the mascot of the Games.

Frank gifted me the bear and badge.

It holds precious memories of my time in the union office and of Frank who died a few years later. There were many debates and discussions around Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (ironically the USA also took that path years later), the Olympic boycott, the decisions of individual athletes to go or stay, and the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. These set a high competitive benchmark for every Olympiad since and the effort to go one better.

As Alexander McCall Smith said, ‘we don’t forget…’ and keepsakes and objects help spark the memories!

mascot of russian olympics copy
Misha, also known as Mishka designed by children’s book illustrator Victor Chizhikov

The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Australia supported the boycott but left any final decision over participation to individual athletes and respective NOCs.

The International Olympics Federations protested that the pressures by the US and other supporting countries for the boycott was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end, and the victims of this action would be the athletes.

Needless to say, there have been plenty of politics at every Olympics since and the controversy over Moscow resulted with only eighty participating countries, the lowest number since 1956.

Yet, the Moscow Games have the distinction that more world records were set than by the fuller contingent attending the previous summer games in Montreal, 1976.

The Sydney Olympics

I have several photographs commemorating the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney, Australia, starting with the Olympic Torch Relay. Lots of community members were chosen to take part in mini relays on the lead up to the great day and my friend from the Union of Australian Women,  Amy Duncan ran in Mordialloc.

When the Olympic Torch came to Melbourne, I kept the girls off school and with hundreds of others we cheered the runners at Mentone. We had some morning tea and then caught a tram to spend the afternoon at a special exhibition about Anne Frank at the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick.

The tram had to stop to let the runners go past, we hopped off and joined the throng of well-wishers. The crowds were so huge, and traffic jammed that we met up with more torch relay runners. It was a slow run because I think the authorities underestimated the thousands who would take to the streets to cheer.

olympic torch 2000

The girls met several runners (former and current athletes) and they both got to hold an Olympic Torch. Perhaps in a writing class of the future, they’ll write their story of that day.

For most people, the highlight of the 2000 Games was Cathy Freeman and although I would never call myself a sporty person, Cathy, and those Games encouraged me to be a couch potato for a few weeks, and join John and the girls watching the Games!

The Beijing Olympics

The final Olympic story triggered by Donna’s magnificent Mother’s history was of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Prior to China hosting the Olympic Games, I was working for Melbourne University Student  Union, and we hosted a delegation of Chinese university students from the same Beijing university that led the protests in 1989 later known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The students were coming to Australia to learn about representative student unions, how to run student elections, and work with university administration.

We had many interesting discussions and I showed them photographs of my time in China in 1979 – long before any of them were born! We also talked about 1989 and what memories they or their parents had. They were optimistic for the democratization of their country’s institutions.

All of them had gifts to share and along with a lovely wall hanging and polished wooden coasters, they gave me an Olympic Games fan, and I requested their autographs.

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Please share whatever memories you have of Olympic Games – past or present!

 

 

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