The Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast in April was preceded 80 years ago this month by the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney involving around 500 athletes and officials from 15 nations.
Timed to coincide with Sydney’s sesqui-centenary (150 years since the foundation of British settlement in Australia) it was the third British Empire Games, later to be renamed the Commonwealth Games in 1978 for that year’s Edmonton Games in Canada.
Seven sports were featured in the Sydney Games – athletics, boxing, cycling, lawn bowls, rowing, swimming and diving and wrestling.
At the opening ceremony the teams were led into the Sydney Cricket Ground by the 100-strong British team watched by a crowd of up to 40,000.
It took 90 minutes for representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Bermuda, British Guiana Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia and Trinidad to circle the cricket ground, with the Australian team, “wearing white sweaters and cream trousers, bringing up the rear”.
By the end of day one West Australian athlete Decima (Dessie) Norman had already emerged as Australia’s star of the event, winning the women’s 100 yards championship in record Empire Games time, and just short of the world record.
Norman, then 28, later secured another five gold medals in the final leg of the 440-yard medley relay, set an Empire record in the long jump, the 220-yard sprint, and the 660-yard relay. As the premier athlete of the event, she became Australia’s first athletics “golden girl”. She died in 1983.
In addition to the Sydney Cricket Ground, events were held at the Sydney Sports Ground, Henson Park and North Sydney Pool.
A competitors’ residential village was built at the Sydney Show Ground at Moore Park, although female athletes stayed at the Kirketon Hotel at Darlinghurst.
Australia won a total of 25 gold medals, including six in athletics and five of seven golds in wrestling, well ahead of second placegetter England, who took home 15 golds.
Bondi swimmer Margaret Dovey, future wife of future prime minister Gough Whitlam, competed in the 220-yard breaststroke coming sixth.
Her fellow swim-team competitors Ron Masters, Irene Donnett, Percy Oliver, Evelynde Lacy, Dorothy Green and Pat Norton won gold medals in diving, backstroke and freestyle events.
So eighty years ago this month let’s remember and celebrate the early victories of Australian women representing our fine country.
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