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The Mega-event that Set a Pace for Vancouver

Epic races and boondoggles aplenty, the 1954 Commonwealth Games had it all.

Bob Mackin 31 Jul

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since he began as a journalist in 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

Partially adapted from Mackin's book Red Mittens & Red Ink: The Vancouver Olympics.

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Roger Bannister and John Landy's 'Miracle Mile' race at the 1954 Games was the first time two men conquered the mile in under four minutes.

Vancouver police officer Cookie Ryan fired his pistol and nobody got hurt.

It was the start of the most-anticipated event of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games: the men's mile at Empire Stadium. More than 35,000 people were packed into the stadium in Vancouver's northeast end on the Saturday afternoon of Aug. 7. It was the city's biggest gathering yet for a sporting event. Millions more watched on televisions or listened on radios live across the world.

Vancouver was, according to Sun reporter Erwin Swangard, "the centre of the universe."

Ticket scalpers wanted as much as $100 for a ticket, while gatecrashers tempted fate to slip in unnoticed. Others scaled the ticket booths to catch a glimpse over the fence for the scheduled 2:30 p.m. final.

The undercard included the men's 440-yard race. Australian Kevan Gosper set the Empire Games record of the single-lap race in 47.1 seconds. Photographs show Gosper easing into the finish line, wearing a wide smile across his face. New Zealander Don Jowett was runner-up and Cumberland, B.C.'s Terry Tobacco got the surprise bronze.

Gosper's career in sport came full circle almost 56 years later at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"I always remember how hospitable the Vancouver people were," recalled Gosper, who returned to the city as head of the International Olympic Committee's press commission. "Coming from Sydney, I, at that time, felt very good ambience being in a place like Vancouver with big waterways and a harbour."

Gosper was studying at Michigan State University and drove to Vancouver with a teammate to compete in the 1954 Games. His event took place the same day as the much-anticipated men's "Miracle Mile" race. "I must say there was a bit more preoccupation with the press in terms of the Bannister/Landy event," Gosper recalled.

The 25,407 seat and 3,000 standing room tickets for the miler had been sold out for weeks, but more jammed in than were legally allowed.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student, wore bib 329 and his Australian rival John Landy, an agriculture student, wore 300. The eight-man race didn't really begin until the final 90 yards when Landy gazed over his left shoulder as Bannister passed, open-mouthed, on his right.

It may have been the most famous turning point in the history of athletics as Bannister continued his kick and won by five yards. He broke the tape and collapsed in the arms of his team manager. Toronto's Rich Ferguson came third, setting a Canadian record with a 4:04.6 mile.

"Everything else that happened in the weeklong orgy of record breaking by British Empire Games athletes was dimmed," wrote Swangard. "For the first time in the running of the competitive mile, two men crashed the once mythical four minute barrier and in one race. And they did it right in Vancouver."

'A week you'll remember'

The slogan for the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, which began 60 years ago today, was "a week you'll remember a lifetime." They were the catalyst for generations of change in Vancouver, and billions of dollars worth of spending.

It all started in 1950, when mayor Charles E. Thompson struck a committee to lobby the British Empire Games Federation to award the Games to Vancouver. In Auckland that year, Canada was given the Games and Vancouver got the nod over Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton.

In 1951, mayor Fred Hume named Stanley V. Smith the organizing committee chairman. Citizens voted to spend $750,000 on Empire Stadium. Like all big events, the price tag only increased.

For a city so small and inexperienced, it was a massive undertaking. Empire Stadium and the University of British Columbia aquatic centre became the centres of controversy.

With less than a year before the Games, city council found its budget for the stadium was $400,000 short and it rejected a proposal for a cheaper roofless stadium without floodlights. The B.C. Lions football club was set to begin play in the Western Provincial Football Union and needed both the rain cover to keep its fans dry and artificial sun to play at night. Hume made a futile proposal for the stadium to instead be on the site of the Capilano Baseball Stadium at Little Mountain.

The deadlock was finally broken Sept. 4, 1953 and work proceeded immediately with a $1.5-million compromise for a 25,000-seat stadium. With inflation, that's a relative bargain by modern standards at $13.4 million in 2014 dollars.

The same week brought the surprise bid by Los Angeles-based Paddock Inc. to build the Games swimming pool for $140,000 less than the Beaver Construction tender of $440,719.

Instead of replacing Crystal Pool at the foot of Nicola Street or building one near Capilano Stadium, the Games' facilities committee gave a $300,000 gift to UBC, which was $400,000 short of the funds needed to build a roof.

With construction more than halfway done, city council signed the stadium deal, despite being $445,000 short, with Marwell Construction Company. The city was responsible for $821,000, the Games committee $745,000 and the remaining $15,200 by the Pacific National Exhibition.

The Games board approved its eighth revised budget in mid-May 1954, forecasting $2.5 million to operate the Games. Days before the Games began, ticket manager Sam Rosen predicted it would reach the $385,000 sales target. But only $300,000 in tickets had been sold.

Vancouver on the map

The Games opened on July 31, but Empire wasn't the only venue. There were two venues for lawn bowling at West Point Grey and New Westminster schools, fencing at Lord Byng Secondary, a cycling track in China Creek Park and rowing in the Vedder Canal near Chilliwack.

Two dozen Commonwealth countries, a record for the Games, came. Only 13 were at Auckland. The event drew over 600 athletes from 24 nations. England won 23 gold medals of a total 67, followed by Australia (20), South Africa (16) and Canada (nine). The host nation had the second-most silver medals (20), four fewer than England.

Strongman Doug Hepburn, the reigning world weightlifting champion, was the hometown success story, winning gold in the heavyweight division. But he never got the gym promised him by city hall as a gold medal incentive.

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The gold medal presented to Vancouver weightlifter Doug Hepburn. Photo: Bob Mackin.

Mayor Hume, a wealthy entrepreneur who founded the Hume and Rumble electrical company and the CJOR radio station, dug into his own pocket and bought 1,000 tickets for the day of the mile race and donated them to community centres. With each ticket came 50 cents spending money. Hume also commissioned special edition wallets with an image of city hall and his name on them.

The day after the Games, Rosen admitted the committee fell short of its target and registered attendance of 140,000. Midweek attendance was disappointing. There were only 7,000 people at the first Saturday and Tuesday track and field meets. It turned out that many people just stayed home and watched their televisions -- new devices back then.

The Games weren't the hoped-for tourist-boon. Rumours of scarce accommodation deterred visitors. Private home owners offered rooms for 5,000 visitors, but only 100 turned up. Games chairman Smith said he hoped the publicity gained would "bring back a thousandfold" anything hotels lost.

The media predictably wanted an instant balance sheet from the organizers, but weren't going to get it for a while. By February 1955, city council wanted a bailout, but Ottawa balked, claiming the $200,000 it paid was enough.

That didn't stop the city from asking again in May 1955 for $50,000 to match the amount given by the provincial government. The Games federation finally reported a $32,450 operational surplus, but the city was stuck with the $181,000 deficit on the stadium and had to deal with resurfacing costs.


Despite the boondoggles, the 1954 Games was Vancouver's first mega-event and set a pace for future events.

When Empire Stadium, the site of the Games' ceremonies and athletics, began showing its age in the late 1970s, PNE president Erwin Swangard hatched an idea for a new stadium and convention centre for Hastings Park.

Because it was to be funded provincially, premier Bill Bennett's Social Credit government chose False Creek for the stadium and Coal Harbour for the convention centre, leading to Expo 86 and SkyTrain.

Empire Stadium was gone within a decade of BC Place's opening. Sport BC, the umbrella for amateur sport, wondered how to get the city a new amateur sports stadium and looked to the Empire site. Victoria was hosting the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and a bid to attract an even bigger event, the Olympics, was considered the best way to lever public funds.

A summer bid morphed into a winter bid, Vancouver was chosen to host in 2010 and the Games came and went. A temporary setup housed the B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps while BC Place was renovated in 2010 and 2011.

Now the old Empire site is being remade once again, with a pair of synthetic turf fields with facilities for parkour and mountain biking.

And there were other Games-changer of note.

CBC and NBC carried the Games live to an estimated 100 million viewers around North America, most of whom were just discovering television. Vancouver 1954 was featured in the first edition of Sports Illustrated, too.

Jason Beck is the curator of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. He compiled the temporary exhibit for the 60th anniversary of the Games, which includes Peters's sweat-stained plimsolls and a stopwatch forever on Bannister's winning mile time. He is also the author of a forthcoming book about the Games.

"The Games was on a Saturday, and the magazine came out on newsstands on the Thursday or Friday after. People were so amazed that this was possible -- that they could be reading about an event with photos five days after -- they sent in so many letters to Sports Illustrated that in a following issue, the publisher took a page out and gave an explanation of how they did it," Beck said. "People were in disbelief."

Today, a sporting event is streamed live on the Internet and there is instant reaction by social media.

"The mile was the very first event broadcast live North America-wide," Beck said. "The attendance wasn't great at the Games because so many people were staying at home, watching on TV."  [Tyee]

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