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On this day: Melbourne Olympic torch ignites Australia

9 November 2016

Sixty-years ago this week the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games were just weeks away and a tradition that began at the Berlin 1936 Games was underway as the Olympic flame arrived in northern Australia. It kicked off a 2830 person relay over 16 days, igniting communities as it passed on its 4558 kilometres journey to Melbourne.

In Olympia on November 2, 1956, a historic ceremony took place to start the longest torch relay in history to date. A Qantas Airlines plane flew the flame from Athens to Darwin, arriving on November 6. The flight was not the 20 odd hours it is today, with stops in Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta where city receptions greeted the precious cargo. After a short stop in Darwin a RAAF plane flew the flame to Cairns, where the journey by road, down the Australian east coast, commenced.

There had been months of detailed planning to ensure the flame arrived on time for the Melbourne Olympic Opening Ceremony. In view of the climatic conditions varying from tropical to temperate, the times allowed to run each mile were: North Queensland - 7 minutes, South Queensland - 6½ minutes, New South Wales and Victoria-6 minutes. This was quite a challenging task when you consider you were running with the 1kg torch above your head. The Olympic relay continued day and night.

City receptions were held in all major centres, usually allotted 30 minutes each. Communities waiting in anticipation, businesses ceased and everyone packed the main streets to watch the flame pass – day or night the enthusiasm remained. Such was the enthusiasm, dense crowds and traffic jams would occasionally delay the runners and their support vehicles.

The crowd erupted as Ron Clarke carried the flame on the final leg, entering the MCG at 4.20pm on November 22, 1956. After a lap of the stadium, he disappeared momentarily as he climbed the 85 steps to the cauldron. He reappeared to a deafening roar, stood and held the torch high. He then walked out to the rostrum, leant over a lit the cauldron which exploded in flames, sending Clarke staggering back. Let the Games begin!

David Tarbotton

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Melbourne 1956

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Ron Clarke

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