The Whanganui Regional Museum’s temporary site at 62 Ridgway Street is currently featuring a pop-up exhibition, largely sourced from Te Papa, which celebrates the gold medal feats of Olympic champion Sir Peter Snell. It also reflects on our town’s part in the Snell legend, his world-record run on the grass track of Cooks Gardens in 1962.
A feature of the exhibition is a video screen showing footage from both the Rome and Tokyo Games. Like all film from past Olympics, these images are provided under strict license from the International Olympics Committee, a body famous these days as much for its politicking as for its sport. Governance issues aside, the modern IOC has turned itself into a financial juggernaut, with fees for hosting rights only part of a complex and lucrative portfolio of licensing and merchandising deals.
A significant part of that revenue comes from its virtual monopoly over the film and video record of the Olympics extending back to the beginning of the 20th century. The last major move in its campaign to acquire those films came less than 20 years ago and, surprisingly, from a New Zealand source.
The Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956 are remembered for a number of things, perhaps most infamously, the blood-tinted water polo pool when Hungary and the USSR re-enacted the battle which had taken place just days before in the streets of Budapest. A less often remembered aspect was the boycott by international television companies in protest over being required to pay a broadcasting fee, which resulted in very little footage being shot of the events. One company, however, did get cameras into the stadium.
Wellington-based Pacific Films was started in the late 1940s by John O’Shea and Roger Mirams, ambitious and frustrated staff members of the National Film Unit. By the mid-1950s they had managed to establish a sustainable business, largely built on the production of newsreels financed by oil company Caltex. In 1952 the partners decided that there were opportunities for expansion across the ditch and Mirams relocated to Melbourne in pursuit of documentary and drama opportunities. In practice this often meant providing local items for international newsreel companies. Shooting for cinema rather than television (which didn’t start broadcasting in New Zealand for another five years), Mirams and a small Pacific Films crew gained entry to the Melbourne Cricket Ground and other venues to capture many of the important moments, including the gold medal won by New Zealander Norman Read in the 50km road walk.
Roger Mirams’ footage was flown back to New Zealand for Pacific Magazine newsreels and remained in demand internationally for many years because of the shortage of other archival material from Melbourne 1956. Increasingly frustrated by this last hold-out, the International Olympic Committee swooped and purchased the whole collection from John O’Shea following his retirement in 1999, pretty much completing their full house of Olympics films and ending New Zealand’s direct connection with a slice of sporting history.
Frank Stark is the director of the Whanganui Regional Museum.