Me, Dad and the Olympic Games

1956 was a very busy year for my dad, John ‘Jack’ Leo COGHLAN (1909-1974). Not only did he become a father for the fifth time—to me—but he was working at the Olympic Games in, our home town, Melbourne.

1957 Marg

The XVI Olympiad was the first Olympic Games to be held in Australia and the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere. It was also the first Games to be televised.

Dad’s official position at the Games was: ‘Technical Instructor, Olympic Training Scheme’. The position was for 12 months as a teacher of broadcasting techniques. Three hundred technicians were trained at this time.

The lead up...

Dad’s service during WWII was as a radio operator in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), serving in New Guinea and the South Pacific. On joining up, he was already proficient in morse code; a lover of anything to do with valves, resistors, oscilloscopes or such like. As a teenager he built his own crystal set (a radio receiver that received radio waves by a wire antenna) and in 1936, as a 27-year-old, he obtained his amateur radio licence. His future in the world of technology was laid out.

However, an episode of intense communication during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 nearly put an end to his dreams of a technical life. During the attack Dad sent morse code for 48 hours. The intensity and repetitiveness of this action resulted in a ‘wayward’ right arm. Messages from his brain to his arm became scrambled. In my childhood years, the disability manifested itself, mostly, at the kitchen table: in reaching for something, such as, the salt and pepper his arm would rise up, like something possessed. To control it he had to bring it down with his left arm. We laughed. We thought it was a joke. And I must admit Dad made a joke of it too. Ever the comedian. But it must have been very frustrating for him. Mum told me she had to cut up his food for him after they were married in 1943. However, not one to be beaten by adversity (in fact, the COGHLAN family motto is ‘Courage in Adversity’) Dad learnt to write and send morse code with his left hand. Nothing was going to stop him pursuing his technical dreams.

Following his medical discharge from the RAAF, and as part of his repatriation back into civilian life, he was asked what sort of work he would like to do. He didn’t hesitate; telecommunications. He was now learning to manage his disability with a little Valium, a muscle relaxant, and his new found skill of ambidexterity.

In 1944, he took up a position as a technician in the Radio section of the Post Master General’s (PMG) Department. He worked in Broadcast House, Lonsdale St, Melbourne, the home of the radio station 3LO (now 774 ABC Melbourne)* on-air studio until 1955. Whilst there he learned a lot about recording techniques, even recording his young children, singing, on a ’78’ record.

*For a brief history of 3LO to 774 click here


The Games…

Amongst the family memorabilia are some of the official photos taken of the broadcasting areas at the Games. The following photos feature a spruced up Dad with a seemingly fresh short, back and sides, ready for one of the most exciting times of his life—besides my entry into the world, of course:

1956 Dad at the controls. Olympic Games Melbourne. Unknown photographer. Author’s private collection.

1956 Dad on left. Others unknown. Olympic Games Melbourne. Unknown photographer. Author’s private collection

1956 Dad top of photo with ? Olympic Games Melbourne. Unknown photographer. Author’s private collection.

An ‘unofficial’ photo’ of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is also part of the family archive. Family folklore says that Dad is the fellow in the white trailer perched precariously in front of a jeep in the centre of the following photo:

1956 MCG Olympic Games, Melbourne Australia. Apparently Dad’s the guy being transported precariously on the front of a jeep standing in the white cubicle on top of steps, centre of photo. Unknown photographer. Author’s private collection.

It’s great to have these photos and it’s been an added bonus to find Dad in a film clip archived in Australian Screen; ‘Australia’s audiovisual heritage online’, part of the National Film and Sound Archive.

This clip comes from a film sponsored by the Postmaster-General’s Department (now divided into Australia Post and Telstra) designed to celebrate and promote the achievement of a telecommunications system for the 1956 summer Olympics in Melbourne that was modern and of an international standard. The Games, the first to be held in Australia and in the southern hemisphere, were seen as a chance to prove Australia could stage a world-class event.

In the film clip (below), Dad is standing to the left of screen, in his ‘supervising role’ at the 32 second mark. He’s on for about 4 seconds so you’ve got to be quick!

Australia Post – Olympic Post Script (1956) Clip 1

There’s also some great examples of home movies taken at the Melbourne Games by Bruce Beresford, Mike Leyland and Sir Robert Menzies on the National Film and Sound Archive. To see them click here


After the Games, Dad went on to have a very fruitful and rewarding career with the PMG. But his technical interests did not stop at work; in his ‘spare time’ he made our television set and stereo equipment, and to ‘relax’, he exchanged signal strength information and weather conditions with people all over the world on his beloved ‘ham’ radio. A true techno whiz!

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16 Responses to Me, Dad and the Olympic Games

  1. Carmel G says:

    So well written Marg. I had no idea your Dad was a technology buff and how exciting to be part of the Melbourne Olympics. Have read all of your blogs and thoroughly enjoy them.

  2. Heather Rose says:

    gold medal to your dad Marg! and to you for such and interesting, fact-filled article.

  3. brian cockerall says:

    Great one Marg!! Watched the film clip and saw your dad – all four seconds of him. I can see why you are so proud of him. By the way, Happy Birthday for 2016.
    Brian

    • Marg says:

      Thanks Brian. Dad was a very clever chap. And thanks for the birthday wishes. I’m not quite there yet but I’m looking forward to the Seniors Card!

  4. Rosemary says:

    This was brilliant Marg! Loved reading all about Uncle Jack and his involvement with the Olympic Games. The photos and film clip were also great to see.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks Rosemary. I don’t know how Mum coped. It must have been a very busy household. I can imagine your dad would’ve loved this blog post. I remember my dad and your dad getting together and discussing ‘ham’ equipment. A very specialized hobby! x

  5. geoff says:

    Very timely blog Marg – 60 years since the ’56 games.The video clip worked OK too I see.
    An interesting addendum to your terrific blog: Dad actually smuggled Peter and I into the MCG for one of the big Track and Field days! (Dad had a pass of course, but here were no tickets to be had- it was a full house). I was 12, but I can remember three things clearly about that day –
    One of Dad’s PMG mates distracted the white-clad navy officer on the turnstiles while Peter and I walked calmly past. I reckon it was pre-arranged between them!
    Without seats, he somehow got us up to sit on the metal deck roof of the press box. Boy was it hot!
    The only performance I remember was the finish of the 4000 metres – gold medal to the great Russian athlete Vladimir Kuts.

    • Bernadette says:

      Heck Geoff you have a good memory! I can’t remember much about those days! Then again I was only nearly 7! What an experience for you boys!
      Thanks Marg I loved it. I think I have read it 3 or 4 times. xxoo

    • Marg says:

      Wow. How lucky were you boys to be part of the Olympics in Melbourne. Thanks for posting this story Geoff. One for the family archive x

  6. Steve Shelley says:

    What a great blog, Margie, I loved it. The image of Grandpa Jack’s arm rising of its own volition at the kitchen table is one that’ll stay with me I think! Thanks for the brilliant read. I just subscribed 🙂

  7. Tony Lee says:

    Hi Margaret
    Such a fantastically rich piece of work.
    I must have been very impressed by Uncle Jack’s amateur radio activity, because I can still “see” his shack and Jack demonstrating in action HF chats around the world to me and my dad. And I can still see his impressive aerial system in the back yard. I guess I would have been 13 at the time (1960?). I would believe his inspirational demos could be what lead me into electronics and even a later in life venture into amateur radio myself.
    Tony Lee
    PS more to be discussed on another front
    Music and the Coghlan/Lee get-togethers. -what started all that?

    • Marg says:

      Hi Tony,
      I think Dad’s enthusiasm for his passion was infectious. I have a feeling the technical stuff and the desire to find out ‘how things work’ is a Lee trait. The aerial is a feature remembered by several cousins and neighbours. I suppose not everyone had one in their backyard! I remember after Dad died (1974) Mum wanted you to have his gear (there were a couple of hams ‘hanging around’ who were keen to get a hold of it)..I think you were working at Box Hill TAFE at the time?? As part of a creative writing course I wrote about our lounge room. And what came to mind was Dad entertaining us with his antics and your mum laughing her head off. A wonderful memory.
      So, I wonder if that prompted the idea of each of us ‘performing’. We were all learning musical instruments so I suppose it was another way of getting used to ‘playing in public’ and it was the Irish way of course. I have very fond memories of our Christmas/New Year get togethers.
      Thanks for commenting Tony. Many mores stories to come!
      Cheers
      Marg

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