You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Eight

The Olympic Flame hoax of 1956

It’s 2020 and the Olympics were supposed to be back, now put back a year, Japan having the dubious honour of draining their economy and building white elephants which deliver little in the way of a sport’s legacy. One of the highlights, for me the only one, is the torch relay, which takes a burning torch all the way from Olympus to the host city.

In 1956 it was Australia’s turn to host the event and the torch was making its way from Cairns to the host city, Melbourne, via Sydney. The procession was not without its drama. Runners suffered from the heat of the sun, torrential rains threatened to extinguish the flame, and the torch was dropped and broken in Lismore. On November 18, the mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills, was due to receive the flame from cross-country running champion, Harry Dillon, make a short speech and then pass it on to another runner, Bert Button.

A crowd of around 30,000 lined the streets to see the torch’s arrival, the press was out in force, photographers and cameramen at the ready. At 9.30am the runner, a young man bizarrely dressed in grey trousers with a white shirt and tie, made his appearance, holding the torch aloft. The police shepherded him towards the mayor and the athlete thrust the torch into the hands of Hills.     

It was at that point that Hills realised something was amiss. His hands were sticky from paint that had come from the handle of the supposed torch. On closer inspection, he found that what he was holding was a chair leg with a tin attached to the top and a pair of underpants ablaze, doused in flammable material. By this time the runner had melted into the crowd. Regaining his composure, the mayor addressed the crowd with these words; “that was a trial run. Our friends from the university think things like this are funny. It was a hoax by somebody. I hope you are enjoying the joke”.  

The mayor may have not been fazed by the prank, but the crowd turned ugly and surged forward. Women began screaming, fearing for the safety of their children and order was only restored when the police cleared a path down which Dillon ran at 9.40. Hills accepted the torch for a second time, made his prepared speech and passed it on to Button he went on his way.

The name of the prankster, Barry Larkin, a veterinary student at St. Johns College at Sydney University, was not made public until several years later but when he got back to the college, he was treated like a conquering hero. Even the college’s rector shook him by the hand and congratulated him. Larkin wasn’t supposed to be the bearer of blazing underwear. One of his co-conspirators, dressed in conventional athletic wear, panicked at the last minute and Larkin stepped into the breach. Hence the tie.

There was a serious message behind the prank, a protest against the origins of the original torch relay that was a feature of the 1936 games in Berlin. As to the ersatz torch, it was taken to a reception at the Town Hall and then found its way into the possession of one John Lawler, who had been following the procession by car. He kept it under his bed, as you do, until it got thrown out during a spring clean.

When Sydney hosted the games in 2000, the papers were full of accounts of Larkin’s shenanigans and although there were several attempts to disrupt that procession, enhanced security saw them come to naught.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone.

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