In 1956, an Olympic year, the world was beset with Cold War anxieties. Tensions between East and West had been heightened less than a month before the Games when the USSR invaded Hungary to crush an uprising. Then Israeli, French and British armies invaded and occupied Egypt’s Sinai and Suez Canal Zone. Would the Melbourne Olympic Games be remembered as the “friendly” Games, a sea of tranquillity in a stormy world, or would they become a victim of the Cold War? Would our moment in the sun be blown away by revolutions and wars raging over 15,000 kilometres away?
Reporting on the Olympic Games for The New Yorker Magazine, sports writer John Lardner suggested that Melbourne had found the antidote for the tensions that plagued the rest of the world. “Australia is enjoying almost a world monopoly on peace, harmony, civility, understanding, and other such symptoms of civilization and good breeding, while Europe is behaving like someone you would think twice about introducing to your sister.”
Keeping Australia safe from the frigid winds of the Cold War was ASIO. However it had never faced a challenge like the one posed by the Olympic Games. Its forte was hunting down “reds under the beds”: local comrades in the universities, unions and the media who might be run as agents of influence by Soviet spies. In 1954, Australians discovered just how real the threat was when Vladimir Petrov defected, as did his wife. He was Third Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, as well as being a lieutenant colonel in the KGB.
I was only one year old for these Olympic Games, but I certainly remember while I was growing up, the dread of “reds under the beds”.