1938 British Empire Games opens in Sydney


Heavy rain during the week cleared for a perfect day for the Opening Ceremony of the British Empire Games of 1938.

By David Tarbotton

The men departed the Empire Village at 1.15pm to assemble with the women at the Cricket Ground No. 2 at 1.30pm. In front of a crowd of 36,000 spectators, the official party entered the Sydney Cricket Ground at 2.00pm followed shortly after by the teams at 2.05pm led by England.

The Governor of NSW His Excellency Lord Wakehurst read a message from King George VI and also welcomed the teams.  The message read:

“I shall be grateful if you will express to all participating in the British Empire Games my hearty thanks for their loyal assurances. I send my best wishes for the success of the Games, the results of which I shall follow with interest and I am particularly glad to know that they have attracted to Sydney the representatives of so many parts of the Empire – George, R.I.”

This tradition of a message from the monarch continues today and in 1958 the Queen’s Baton Relay was introduced for the Cardiff Games.

The ceremony continued with the release of 2000 pigeons ahead of the Oath of Amateurism read by the great Australian cyclist Dunc Gray, who was also the Australian team flag bearer. After the Choir sang ‘Rule Britannia’ the band teams departed as the band played.

Within 10 minutes of the completion of the opening ceremony the competition had commenced. A major contrast to these days where the transition between opening ceremony and the track and field competition can take days to complete.

First event was the men’s 100 yards heats, where two Australian’s John Mumford and Ted Best would go onto win silver  and bronze respectively in the final. Best would in later life serve as Lord Mayor of Melbourne City. The next event was the women’s 100 yards heats, and in a very demanding program, all three rounds were held over just one hour and 45 minutes and featured Perth’s Decima Norman. A favourite with the crowd they encouraged her with calls of “Little Un” and she was dubbed the “The White Streak,” “Dashing Dessie” and “The Flying Handful.”

The challenging schedule didn’t seem to worry Norman who, running with her unorthodox style of hunched shoulders and head down, clocked 11.1 seconds in the heat, semi and the final where she claimed the gold. It was a significant moment as it was Australia’s first women’s athletics gold in a major competition and led a procession of great Australian women who would follow her.

There had been controversy in the semi-final when Queenslander Thelma Peake was disqualified in her 100 yarsd semi-final. She had been unaware she was awarded an earlier break when she was confused by the javelin competition taking place near the start. There was a demonstration by the crowd and the starter was ‘counted out’ by the spectators.

The first medal decided was in the men’s 3-mile event with Kiwi Cecil Matthews winning by six seconds in 13:59.6, only nine seconds outside the world record.

The last event on day one was the final of the men’s 440 yard hurdles. The winner was by 1936 Olympic silver medallist John Loaring (CAN) whose time of 52.9 would remain the fastest in the world for the year 1938. Placing sixth was Sydney University’s Paul Magee, the grandfather of two-time Commonwealth Games sprinter and Atlanta Olympian Paul Greene, a singer-song writer with Rob Hirst in the band Ghostwriters and a front man of a reformation of Spy vs Spy.

The two-hour track and field program concluded just after 5.00pm, and at 8.00pm at North Sydney pool, the swimming program commenced.



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