Heidelberg Olympic Village

Like many estates built during the public housing shortage of the early 1950s, the Olympic Village in West Heidelberg was built fast, but still only just in time to serve its immediate purpose. The Village was built by the Housing Commission to house the 6,000 athletes and officials participating in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. At the end of the Games, the Village was used to permanently accommodate families in need of housing. Some flats were still being finished as athletes from around the world arrived to take part in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

This was an unusual athletes  village. Traditionally, Olympic teams had been housed in dormitories; here, they were allocated semi-detached houses and flats. For the first time, women and men were housed in the same area, with only a fence to separate them. Legend records that when male footprints were identified near the fence on the women s side, an investigation revealed that a Greek pole vaulter in search of female company had simply leapt the barrier.

Residents of existing public housing in Heidelberg treated the Games as a giant neighbourhood festival. Some were paid up to £100 to beautify their front gardens. Football legend Peter McKenna, who grew up in West Heidelberg in a close-knit neighbourhood with a wonderful sense of community spirit,  was 10 at the time, and recalls walking up to the Olympic Village with his autograph book to get the signatures of the famous athletes.

When the Village was turned over to public housing tenants after the Games, Heidelberg was Victoria s largest housing estate. By 1960, it comprised 4,362 properties, occupied by tenants most of whom came from impoverished inner-city neighourhoods or post-war emergency housing in Royal Park. They brought 'strong working class ethics' with them, says historian Robin Grow.

Alan Cook moved into Tarakan Estate in 1972, though his brother-in-law warned against it. 'He said how bad things were here. But when we arrived, everything was perfect. We told him, 'We re up the Paris end of West Heidelberg!' His neighbours were mostly working families, and there were parties on the estate most weekends. 'Everyone would bog in. People would bring out food, and we d set it all up in the laundries.'

Things changed in the following decades as original residents aged, and others took up the chance to buy new Housing Commission properties in places like Broadmeadows. Increasingly, flats went to priority clients: single mothers, struggling families, people with complex needs, and refugees, many from Somalia. Betty Tydeman moved into a Commission flat in 1994. 'To be honest, it was a terribly rough area,  she says, but if you make an effort, people would look after you. If you move into a community, you ve got to go with it. ' Betty threw herself into volunteering and community work, and learned some Somali words so that she could say hello to her neighbours.

West Heidelberg is one of the most multicultural parts of the city, says former mayor of Heidelberg, Michelle Penson and chair of the Olympia Community Liaison Committee. 'Some streets have as many nationalities as the United Nations,'  so it s fitting that the memory of the Games remains a cherished part of the area s heritage. The 50th anniversary of the Games, celebrated by a community festival in 2006, was the highlight of a year which also marked the start of a Neighbourhood Renewal.

Betty Cuthbert wins gold in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

The 1956 Olympic Games, Melbourne

Dubbed the Friendly Games, the Melbourne Games were not without controversy and compounded by bickering over financing among Australian politicians. The Premier of Victoria refused to allocate money for the Olympic Village, and the country s Prime Minister barred the use of federal funds. The Olympic Village was eventually built in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. It took two years to build and cost the Government £2 million. Seven hundred and eighty brick and concrete houses were built to provide accommodation for over 6000 athletes and officials. The Olympic Park Stadium was built as a training site for the 1956 Games. It had room for almost 20,000 spectators. The stadium had a new athletics track and a soccer pitch. The Games were held at different places in or around Melbourne. The opening and closing ceremonies were held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (M.C.G). The track and field events, the hockey finals and soccer finals were also held there.
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