The Olympics and an unknown Chinese boy

For those of you enduring lockdown, the Olympic Games are probably providing some welcome relief. Brisbane has just been announced as the host of the 2032 Olympics, Tokyo 2020 will be remembered as the COVID Olympics and Sydney 2000 is still regarded as the ‘best Olympic Games ever’. Have you ever wondered why Melbourne 1956 was known as the Friendly Games, when it was held against the backdrop of Cold War tensions, international boycotts, the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Uprising? It relates to a suggestion made by ‘an unknown Chinese boy’ – later identified as 17-year-old John Ian Wing – which has remained a tradition at most Olympics since 1956.

John Wing was born in 1939 in the inner Melbourne suburb of Windsor. His grandfather arrived from southern China in the 19th century. When John was a few months old, his mother died and his father Harry Wing placed him in the Methodist Children’s Home, where he was given the name Ian as there were already several boys named John. After Harry remarried, John returned to his family and lived above his father’s Chinese restaurant, the Kwong Tung Café, which was located in Bourke Street just steps from Victorian Parliament.

John was a carpenter’s apprentice and student at Swinburne Technical College in Hawthorn when the Olympic Games came to his hometown in 1956. He witnessed the Olympic movement being torn apart due to global political tensions, particularly the violent ‘blood in the water’ men’s water polo match between Hungary and the USSR. John had an idea for a peace march during the closing ceremony to help restore the integrity of the Olympic movement. He wrote a letter to the Australian Olympic Committee proposing:

The march I have in mind is different than the one during the Opening Ceremony and will make these games even greater, during the march there will only be 1 NATION. War, politics and nationality will be all forgotten … no team is to keep together and there should be no more the [sic] 2 team mates together, they must be spread out evenly, and THEY MUST NOT MARCH but walk freely and wave to the public …

‘A boy’s idea of a century’, The Argus, 10 December 1956, p 5. Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia.

John’s idea was adopted, with Melbourne’s Argus reporting, ‘Five hundred athletes from all nations marched around the arena eight abreast on Saturday – all intermingled in a last farewell which had never been seen at the Games before’. The newspaper lauded the ‘idea of a century’ that had come from ‘an unknown Chinese boy’ (The Argus, 10 December 1956, p 5).

While John had signed his letter with ‘John Ian’, the signature was illegible and the only other identifying information he provided was: ‘I am a Chinese boy and have just turned 17 years of age’. John eventually sent a follow up letter to Wilfrid Kent Hughes, chairman of the Olympics organising committee, giving his full name and address but asking to remain anonymous.

Thirty years later, in 1986, a researcher came across John’s second letter in the collection of the National Library of Australia and the author was finally located in London. You can read more about John Wing’s story at the City of Kingston. And if you happen to be near Sydney Olympic Park (perhaps at the Homebush vaccination hub), keep an eye out for John Ian Wing Parade, the main road leading from the stadium to the Olympic Village in Newington.

Kim Tao, Senior Curator