Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: the political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 15

Political dirty tricks at Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and Sydney 2000

SYDNEY Sun-Herald, 1986-2007

Searching through personal papers I came across volumes of material I had collected over the years on the Olympic Games and the Swiss-based International Olympic Committee (IOC), the disgraced agency that runs the worldwide sports extravaganza every four years. Buried in the documents were details of the 1956 Games in Melbourne and mention of Senator John Gorton. An early promoter of the Games, Gorton was a sports enthusiast who became entangled in Liberal Party politics at the first “Cold War” Olympics.

The idea of staging the Olympics in Sydney had been kicking around for 20 years when it suddenly became a serious proposition under the NSW Liberal Government of Premier Nick Greiner. Ever since 1956 when Melbourne became the first Australian city ever to host the Games, and the first venue in the southern hemisphere, Sydney’s highly competitive elite had dreamed of claiming the status as Australia’s No 1 city and shoving Melbourne off its perch. Olympic bid stories began to grow in intensity around 1990 while I was working on Sydney’s Sunday newspaper, The Sun-Herald, then owned by John Fairfax & Sons, and I distinctly recall thinking: “I want no part of covering this. I’ll just keep my head down and continue writing about politics, crime and corruption.” How wrong I was. Over the next decade the Olympics became part of my “beat”, following me from Sydney to London, Monaco, Atlanta and back again.

Sydney’s mood during the hectic bid period recalled the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by the great English novelist Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” I remember the “belief” and the “incredulity” with a sense of guilt because I was caught up in it as well. It was difficult not to be. The non-stop chorus of the media, big business and politicians was corrosive, coercive and deafening. No one could escape the noise and it worked. The city’s then three million people were recruited as cheer leaders for a dream of sporting triumph which was still 10 years away in 2000 and only if Sydney won the tough bidding process.

My relapse into scepticism started in Monaco where Sydney’s good and great assembled in September 1993 to hear the result of the ballot by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the prize of host city in 2000. A member of the Australian press team pulled me aside saying: “I wouldn’t go to the ceremony tonight if I was you. If Sydney loses, Rod McGeoch reckons he’s going to punch you out.” McGeoch, a Sydney lawyer, was CEO of the Sydney Olympic Bid Committee, and a man of boundless energy, enthusiasm and self-belief. At 6ft 10in (208cm) he was immensely tall and fiercely fit. I decided to stay well out of his way, especially after other media minders relayed the same message to me.

His animus towards me was based a front-page article I’d written from Monaco in the lead-up to the vote: “SECRET DEAL TO WIN GAMES” (S-H, 19 September 1993). It read: “Sydney and Manchester have reached a secret agreement to back each other’s bid rather than see Beijing win the 2000 Olympic Games. If Manchester is eliminated in the early rounds of Thursday’s voting, it will persuade its supporters to switch allegiance to Sydney. And in the more unlikely event of Sydney dropping out, it will do the same for Manchester. Simple arithmetic suggests the combined votes of Sydney and Manchester will be sufficient to overwhelm Beijing in the drama-packed vote.”

I quoted British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, old Etonian, Cambridge graduate, diplomat and then Lord Hurd, who was on a visit to Sydney: “I just hope it’s a clean fight and that Manchester wins. But if not Manchester, I think the Games should come here.”

Rod McGeoch, Olympics Bid CEO

I thought my article from Monaco was innocuous. McGeoch, SOCOG, the bid committee and the hangers-on all thought it was outrageous. A press conference was called to denounce my article, deny a “secret deal” with the Brits and pledge that IOC rules forbidding government lobbying had not been breached. The atmosphere was so hostile I stopped going to the IOC press centre and its other haunts to avoid the jingoistic criticism of colleagues. The truth was that every government – the USA, UK, Russia, China, Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece – ALL lobbied for votes and, in some cases, also paid for them in cash or gifts. Methods of vote-buying had become much more sophisticated. In 1956, for example, the gentlemen behind the Melbourne bid sent food parcels and bottles of Victorian wine to British IOC members.

I attended Sydney’s final presentation and hid in the back of the room. Annita Keating, “Dutchy”, spoke in English, French and Italian and stressed Australia’s multiculturalism. It was breast-swelling stuff. Eleven-year-old schoolgirl Tanya Blencowe stole the show saying: “Sydney is a friendly city where it doesn’t matter where you come from. We are all Australians together. We eat together, learn together and play together. That’s what the Olympics really mean to me.”

I must admit that it became a bit teary. You could have heard a pin drop in the packed auditorium before the cheering broke out. I wondered whether Rod McGeoch was listening.

My newspaper prediction was precisely what happened. In the final voting, Sydney had four opponents: Beijing, the clear favourite to win; Berlin, recently restored as capital of a re-united Germany; Istanbul, a NATO member knocking on the door for entry into the Common Market (EU); Manchester, England’s northern capital rebuilding after the social devastation left by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic and industrial wrecking ball. Three early contenders, Brasilia, Milan and Tashkent, had already pulled out. Eighty-nine IOC members voted, although the Swiss member inexplicably rushed to the airport to fly home before the final vote was taken.

“And the winner is – Syd-er-ney!” NSW Premier John Fahey, right, with Rod McGeoch at  Monaco 1993

In the first round, Beijing won 32 votes and Sydney 30. In the second round, Istanbul dropped out and five of its seven votes went to Beijing. None went to Sydney. In the third round, seven of Berlin’s nine votes went to Sydney. In the final round, Manchester dropped out and eight of its 11 votes went to Sydney. Result: Sydney 45 and Beijing 43. IOC president Antonio Samaranch was clearly bewildered. In a speech thanking all the bid cities he inadvertently gave the victory to Beijing which created a bedlam of cheering among China’s media contingent. Shaking like a leaf, Samaranch uttered the now-famous words: “And the winner is (pause) Syd–er-ney.” It seemed to many of us that he half-expected to say “Beijing” and that is why he couldn’t pronounce Sydney properly. McGeoch said result was “a great moment in our history” and suddenly colleagues were slapping me on the back and saying: “Well done, mate, a good call. You were right on the money.”

Prime Minister Paul Keating

Here, for the first time, is the back story. The week before Monaco, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating flew into London where he paid visits to No 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace before touring the clock, music and tie shops of Mayfair. I snatched a few minutes of his time for an interview and private talk. The Queen, an inveterate gambler who calculated the odds on the gee-gees each day, had been counting the IOC numbers too. As well as being Britain’s constitutional monarch, she was Australia’s Head of State. Her daughter, Anne, was an influential IOC member with a vote and would soon become president of the British Olympic Association. After saluting Manchester with a vote during Monaco’s decision-making, would the princess give the majority of Britain’s preference votes to Sydney? Indeed, this is what happened. Not for the first time in her life, Anne would obey mummy’s wishes.

The IOC’s choice of Monaco to stage the bid vote was widely celebrated because of its perceived non-aligned status. This was very troubling. I preferred to describe it as “a French business concession run by the Grimaldi family. The corporation which runs the principality is the Société des Bains de Mer (SBM) founded in 1863. Prince Rainier [now deceased] and his family are the major shareholders and control SBM’s multitude of money-making activities. Its central holding is the magnificent Hotel de Paris and the adjoining Monte Carlo Casino built in 1865 on the orders of Monaco’s then ruler, Charles III.” Outside the hotel, which was fully book by the IOC and bid nations, I found Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins and a brave band of two indigenous musicians playing didgeridoos and dancing. Rainier’s son, Prince Albert, was a full IOC member with voting rights. Australian officials told me his vote for Sydney was “in the bag”.

John Coates, AOC president

My final report from Monaco was one of the biggest “scoops” of my career. From sources deep inside the Sydney Olympics hierarchy I discovered that a clean-out of top personnel would occur when the victorious team returned to Sydney. Those to be axed included SOCOG chief executive Sandy Hollway, a career public servant from Canberra. I wrote my story, flew back to my office in London assuming that I had delivered a front-page sensation. On phoning Sydney, however, I discovered the story wasn’t on the front page at all. My editor, Andrew Clark, son of Manning, was sceptical of its veracity because it had been furiously denied by Games officials in Sydney. Many phone calls later Andrew became convinced the story was true and put in on the front page of the final (Sydney) edition, the paper’s biggest seller. Because of the time difference between London and Sydney, I spent most of the next 24 hours answering calls from newspapers, radio stations and TV studios, all wanting interviews and details of my “scoop”.

They didn’t have long to wait. A press release was issued and Hollway was out. Shortly after Rod McGeoch was dumped as well. McGeoch’s departure was deplored by the mass media with the SMH reporting that he made “no secret that he blamed John Coates (AOC president), his off-sider Phil Coles (IOC member) and Michael Knight (Olympics Minister and SOCOG president) for the leaks that had brought him down”.

Marjorie Jackson, the “Lithgow Flash”

Sprinter Marjorie Jackson, aka “The Lithgow Flash” who won Olympic medals in Melbourne in 1956, replaced McGeoch on the SOCOG board in a genuflection to women athletes and Games history.

When I returned to Sydney a year later after three years as London correspondent, The Sun-Herald launched my “Olympic City Notebook” on 16 October 1994. It was a page devoted to news items and inside dope from the world of politics, courts and sport. To my surprise, SOCOG and its army of lawyers sprang into action threatening me with legal action for using the word “Olympic”. Naturally, I printed the letter. “We consider the use by you of the words ‘Olympic City Notebook’ and the torch and flame symbol in your column may be misleading pursuant to section 52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974 because it implies sponsorship by or affiliation with the Olympic movement. That intellectual property is a substantial and valuable commercial asset. We request that you and your newspaper cease using the words ‘Olympic City Notebook’ and the representation of the torch and flame symbol in your column’s title.” (S-H, 6 November 1994).

I kept the title and torch logo and cheekily told my SOCOG tormentors: “I have no intention of making a single drachma out of the Games. ‘Olympic’ is an adjective to describe the city in which we live. I am not affiliated with the Olympic movement nor would I wish to be. Guys, you have a problem. You aren’t taking yourselves seriously enough.” I never heard another word, but in some quarters of SOCOG the irrational bitterness lingered on.

Over the next couple of years I kept up a running coverage of the Olympics, writing a column from Atlanta on the first Games held in America’s deep south. During a stopover in New York with my eldest son Lachlan I bought the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid. Veterans of his muck-raking days in Sydney and Melbourne were all there: Ray Kerrison, Steve Dunleavy and Neal Travis. Writing about the corporate scandal engulfing President Bill Clinton and Hillary, Kerrison wrote: “The chief culprit in this probe is Hillary Rodham Clinton who is exposed as a scheming, conniving manipulator who would stop at nothing to conceal a record of sleazy misdeeds in office, matched only by a lust for power, money and influence.” I added: “Some might say this bears a passing resemblance to Kerrison’s proprietor, but never mind.”

“The Coca Cola Games”: Atlanta 1996

It was the venerable New York Times, however, which caught my attention with a story about African-American churches in the Deep South being burnt to the ground. In one instance “KKK” was scrawled on a noticeboard in front of the church while elsewhere the word “Nigger” was burned into the front lawn. “In the past six years, 216 fires and desecrations have been committed in the South,” I wrote. “Thirty-six have been burned in the past 18 months and five in the past seven days. For the life of me, I can’t see why we are continually being asked to emulate America. What’s so alluring about a society that goes in for church burning?” I was beginning to have dark thoughts about what I would find in Atlanta.

MIchael Knight at the Atlanta Paralympics, 1996

On entering Atlanta on the eve of the Games I was struck by the oppressive security – men with handguns, rifles and automatic weapons were everywhere at the airport, the city centre streets and the hotel where I was staying. I also realised why the Atlanta shindig was being called “The Coca Cola Games”. The sickening black drink loaded with a stun gun-sized sugar “hit” is everywhere: stalls, banners, flags, posters, gifts and cartoons of the stuff. Corporate America was assembled at every venue and in every café, shop, restaurant and hotel with young men and women in corporate outfits handing out leaflets and desperately trying to get hold of your name, email address or business card. Atlanta’s Games clearly had little or nothing to do with sport and everything to do with selling corporate America. In fact, it was an Expo posing as an Olympics.

I left Atlanta consumed by fears that Sydney was heading in the same direction and wrote: “Regrettably, it seems that history will repeat itself in Sydney in four years’ time where the utter failure to build a truly bipartisan approach is threatening to tip the whole project into a morass or cronyism and community cynicism.”

But I need not have worried about political bipartisanship. It was already firmly established between Liberal and Labor. Liberal Party premiers Nick Greiner and John Fahey worked in harness with Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, NSW Premier Bob Carr and Senator Graham Richardson, a former NSW Labor general secretary. They smugly adopted the slogan “Share the Spirit” then invited themselves to the party. Fahey appeared to the only senior Games chief to grasp that without mass involvement by average Australians, the Games would flop. He only half-succeeded in persuading any of the others.

My highly sceptical coverage of the Games jamboree attracted a following among readers. I received literally hundreds of letters and phone calls from people who were furious with unpaid bills, delayed contracts, unanswered letters and frustrating attempts to arrange business meetings. I believed my column had tapped an important readership and suggested we should consider a two-pronged policy – support the Games in general but provide a platform for the disaffected. It was flatly rejected: senior editors and managers remained tied hand and foot to the Games hierarchy.

Some time in 1999, a year before the opening ceremony, I was invited to meet the “top secret” team in charge of Games security. Six or eight of us went to lunch in the private dining room of a Chinatown restaurant. They were senior NSW police, former Australian Federal Police (AFP), National Crime Authority investigators and ex-ASIO spooks. They had been recruited on the basis of the length of their policing experience, their medals and commendations, integrity, reliability and ability to work in crime, investigations and in mass crowd conditions such as protests or football matches. As part of their pre-Games training they had visited the FBI in America, Scotland Yard in London, Interpol in France, the IOC in Lausanne and Mossad in Israel.

In Canberra they had stayed at guarded “safe” premises and been given lengthy briefings by ASIO (domestic intelligence), ASIS (foreign intelligence) and AFP (Commonwealth crime). At one briefing they struck the “Holy Grail”: a collection of police files collected during and after the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. They told a story of backbiting and bungles on an epic scale and recorded an IOC threat to move the Games to another city unless Melbourne got its act together. Melbourne had won the 1956 bid by just one vote to oust Brazil, the front-runner, also from the southern hemisphere.

Promotional image for the Melbourne Olympic bid

Melbourne’s organisers were plagued by bureaucratic calamities. A promotional film showed sun-drenched sandy beaches which simply didn’t exist in Port Phillip and avoided mentioning the notorious “six o’clock swill” closing time while hailing the fine dining in premier restaurants. But it was the story of the subversive Cold War “dirty tricks” conducted by veteran troublemaker Wilfred Kent Hughes MP MC, chairman of the Melbourne Organising Committee, that stood out. He was also a close personal friend of Senator John Gorton and that grabbed the security team’s attention.

After Prime Minister Menzies sacked Kent Hughes from the Cabinet he arranged through Melbourne Club friends for the MP to manage the Melbourne Games. Menzies hoped that the maverick Liberal would be so consumed by Games infighting that he would cease to be a troublesome gadfly in Canberra. The PM’s devious strategy certainly removed Kent Hughes from any Canberra controversy but it also led to his involvement in one of the most shameful episodes in Australian sporting history.

Wilfrid Kent Hughes MP

Kent Hughes used his Games authority to run a secret intelligence operation against teams from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. A former Federal Cabinet minister and ASIO director-general Brigadier Charles Spry, with the full knowledge of Menzies, led a campaign to persuade athletes from Eastern Europe to defect to Australia. Money was no object. Nor were jobs and housing. Any athlete from Warsaw Pact states would be welcomed with open arms and substantial privileges. In return, they were required to renounce communism and praise the benefits of life in the capitalist West.

Hungary’s IOC delegate Alex Haytay (phonetic spelling) told athletes in his charge that “if they intended to stay in Australia after the Games, they will be offered hospitality and they will get the help that they deserve”. More than 60 Eastern Bloc athletes defected during the Games. Most of them went to the United States which played a major role in the anti-Soviet campaign. But first they had to travel to the Philippines to take out US visas and then fly to America to receive a televised welcome by passionate anti-communists bearing gifts, flags and flowers.

Frank Douglas, a former ASIO man in charge in the Games security detail, told the ABC in 2000 that a senior Hungarian official (possibly Haytay) who was supplying information to Australian intelligence (ASIO) was unmasked by Hungarian authorities. He was recalled to Budapest but realised he faced a death sentence, torture or imprisonment in Siberia. He jumped off a railway bridge in front of a suburban train in an apparent suicide. But Douglas claimed that when he raised the Hungarian’s death with Kent Hughes, the Melbourne Games chairman said that “it was decided that this was the friendly Games and if the police evidence indicated this was suicide, well we’ll leave it at that”.

The Sydney Games security team were bewildered by the Kent Hughes papers. How had a self-proclaimed fascist become a Cabinet Minister and then chief organiser of the Melbourne Olympics? Why hadn’t ASIO investigated the disputed death of the Hungarian Olympic official Alex Haytay? Did he jump or was he pushed? Where was the post mortem report and where were the statements and interviews by investigating police? I drew a blank from Olympic officials in Sydney and Melbourne. It seemed that all the files had been destroyed or were locked up but no one knew quite where. Perhaps some future historian or police investigator will reopen this “cold case” and the full story will emerge.

In 1956, the world situation had turned exceptionally grave with wars on two fronts: Soviet tanks and troops had rolled into Hungary while British, French and Israel troops had attacked Egypt to capture the Suez Canal. Tension flared between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan and China pulled out after Melbourne welcomed a team from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan. (The “Taiwan lobby” of Kent Hughes, Gorton and Wentworth, all federal Liberal MPs, was active again!) Other key Olympic nations to boycott Melbourne were Holland, Spain, Switzerland (in protest against the Soviet crackdown of Hungary) and Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq (over the Suez invasion by Britain, France and Israel). Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser called on the IOC to withdraw invitations to Britain, France and Israel for launching the Suez-Sinai invasion. After it refused, the three Arab countries boycotted the event in protest.

Hungary’s star Ervin Zador covered in blood after the water polo semi-final against USSR in 1956

Menzies was fashioning a narrative to present to voters at the next Federal Election. It went like this: Melbourne’s Olympic Games signified a sports-loving and carefree people who needed to be protected from the ever-present danger of Russian spies and conflicts in the outside world. It worked. In yet another “red scare” election on 22 November 1958, Menzies regained power while a bitterly divided Labor Party lost two more seats. Polymath Barry Jones, who later became Australia’s first science minister, saw the election as a “re-run” of the Spanish civil war. It was, he wrote, “a conflict between communism and fascism, between Moscow and Rome, damnation and salvation, hell and heaven”. Labor’s three consecutive election defeats under the brilliant but capricious leadership of “Doc” Evatt meant that his removal became a priority.

The clash between East and West was not simply ideological. It was fought out in the swimming pool in the semi-final between water polo teams from the USSR and Hungary. It was a kicking, punching and scratching fight which reached boiling point when Hungary’s star player Ervin Zador was forced from the pool with blood pouring from his right eye. Hungary won the contest 4-0 and went on to claim the gold medal by downing Yugoslavia 2-1. Zador gained political asylum in California, given accommodation and a job and still lives there. In the final Games report to the Victorian parliament Kent Hughes was acknowledged as a “hero”. In the New Year’s Honours list in 1957 he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to sport and politics. In Sydney, Olympic officials were elbowing each other in the ribs as they queued for baubles, bangles and beads. It was a sickening spectacle.

Michael Knight, Olympics Minister and SOCOG chairman who rose to imperial stature during the long trek to the opening ceremony, dismissed critics saying: “The Olympics is not going to eradicate poverty in Australia and we are not going to cure cancer.” It was breathtakingly arrogant but also brazenly true. The hard truth was that Sydney, NSW and Australia had deeper social divisions after the Olympics 2000 than before. The rich had become richer and the poor became poorer. The benefits were one-sided and went to the top end of town among people who could afford tickets, hire cars or sponsor packages. Sydney’s Olympics “legacy” was to inherit an under-class and no gold medal was awarded for that.

Next week: Why John Gorton never stood a chance as PM

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook is suspended temporarily while my revelations about Prime Minister John Gorton become my No 1 priority. A. M.





  1. First time I met Alex, I felt sure he would disobey Section 12 of the Trade Practices Act of 1974. The rest of this forensic undressing of the ‘worthy Olympics’ provides a political analysis too absent from current over cautious mainstream journalism, though there are exceptions.

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