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His big idea had legs

In 1956, John Ian Wing proposed that athletes at the Melbourne Olympics march as a group in the closing ceremony. It helped a fraught Games end on a comradely note.

August 23, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON — Around dusk on Thursday, Dec. 6, 1956, a Chinese-Australian youth of 17 walked through the streets of Melbourne to hand-deliver a letter he'd just penned. With the Melbourne Summer Olympics two days from completion, he reached Olympic Committee headquarters on Little Lonsdale Street and pushed his letter through the mail slot.

On a late afternoon in May almost 30 years later, a researcher in a basement in the National Library of Australia in Canberra grew weary navigating the vast correspondence of W. Kent Hughes, the Melbourne Olympic chairman who had died in 1970.

The researcher found a letter written in "a large sort of looping hand, with all these strange diagrams in colored pencils."

On a February afternoon in 2008, John Ian Wing orders a Foster's at a pub in Earl's Court, London. An agile 68-year-old dual citizen of Australia and Britain who looks much younger, he's been a carpenter, a contractor, a Playboy Club employee, a restaurateur and a retiree.

He's also a born Chinese-Australian who did not attend this year's Beijing Games, even though his anonymous letter from a Thursday evening in 1956 wound up renovating the very contour of ensuing Olympics.

"It was part of my life, and the closest of my friends never knew," said Wing, 51 1/2 years after his letter broached the idea of athletes marching into a closing ceremony as one intermingled "nation."

As an observant insomniac with a bustling mind, Wing often stared out his apartment window atop his family's Melbourne restaurant, Kwong Tung Cafe. Through afternoons and evenings, he'd study the behavior out on Bourke Street.

He also devoured movies about cowboys and Tarzan, plus magazines about athletes, especially the great distance-running Olympians Paavo Nurmi of Finland and Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. At 12, listening to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics on the radio, he thought it odd that the closing ceremony seemed a threadbare formality, with just "a speech and lower the flag."

Then he forgot the thought.

Four years later, Melbourne's Olympics began on Nov. 22 with the promise of both friendliness and spite.

Egypt, Iraq and Libya had withdrawn because Britain, France and Israel had attacked Egypt. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland had withdrawn because the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary. China had withdrawn because Olympic officials allowed Taiwan to use the name Formosa. Countries instructed athletes not to talk to certain other athletes.

Yet the first Southern Hemisphere Olympics became the "Friendly Games" and flourished, with 72 countries and 3,314 athletes in 17 events. With Soviet athletes dominant and mysterious and residing on a cruise ship, Australians often went to the water just to look at them, said Shane Cahill of the University of Melbourne. The Games blissfully disregarded the outside world until the afternoon of Dec. 6, when the water polo bracket yielded a semifinal of Hungary versus the Soviet Union.

The "Blood in the Water" match became infamous for the sight of Hungary's Ervin Zador emerging from the pool with blood streaming from above his right eye, and for police stopping the match (Hungary won, 4-0, en route to the gold medal).

The details over the radio constituted a "last straw" for a certain 17-year-old student apprentice in carpentry and metalworking who'd spent his whole life in Melbourne and loathed politics' encroachment on the Olympics. "I thought, 'The Olympic movement is getting torn apart, getting abused,' " Wing said.

At his little desk, he mulled proposing an all-athlete party, but then "it dawned on me, what I thought about four years before, about the closing ceremony. And I thought, 'Yeah, the closing ceremony.' "

Just then, he recalled one of his observations from Bourke Street. When people lined up at the cinema, he'd noticed, they did so in an orderly line -- not unlike an opening ceremony. But when they emerged, they did so in an unscripted crowd, looking freer and happier. If the athletes mixed likewise, they could march into a closing ceremony as "one nation" and provide a momentary antidote to the nastiness.

Even 51 1/2 years later, urgency still brims in the letter headed "Dear Friend" and beginning, "I am a Chinese boy and have just turned 17 years of age." The writer didn't dawdle, needing only two pages and another one for diagrams.

"Like all great ideas, it's its pure simplicity that makes it so successful," Cahill said by phone from Australia.

Wing went to Hughes' mail slot Thursday evening, then checked the Friday afternoon papers for hints of any changes to the closing ceremony. He saw none. On Saturday, the day of the ceremony, he went to the cinema.

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