This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Not long before the end of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the International Olympic Committee received an anonymous letter. It was attributed to a local Chinese boy, but contained neither a name nor an address. The handwritten message was sincere and heartfelt, and appealed directly to the ideals of the Olympic Movement. The boy's words made an immediate impression. This was a letter which would make history, and change the Olympic Games for good.
In the letter, there was a simple plea for international unity. The 1956 Olympics had been febrile affair, reflecting the polarised geopolitical backdrop of the emergent Cold War. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon had boycotted the event, in protest at the Suez Crisis and the aggression of Israel, France and the United Kingdom towards Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egyptian regime. There was further non-participation from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain, owing to the USSR's violent suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
While Soviet athletes competed with their Hungarian counterparts that November, Russian tanks were rolling through the cobbled streets of Budapest. The tensions between the USSR and Hungary led to a famous confrontation in water polo, where a fierce clash between the two belligerents would come to be known as the 'Blood In The Water' match. The game was so violent that the pool ran red, with Hungary's Ervin Zádor receiving a vicious cut to his face after a punch from the USSR's Valentin Prokopov. Hungary would go on to win the match, though their national uprising was on the verge of being crushed.
With China also choosing to avoid the Games in their anger at the separate participation of Taiwan, Melbourne had become a political warzone. This was the start of the Cold War's long and bitter Olympic wrangles, which would come to define much of twentieth century sport. There was one boy who saw all this, however, and decided that he wanted to do something. That boy was John Ian Wing, though nobody would know his name for another 30 years.
Though he had suggested so in his letter, Wing wasn't really a 'boy' at the time of writing. He was a 17-year-old apprentice carpenter, and had few illusions about the world. Born to a Chinese couple in the Melbourne suburb of Windsor, his mother had died in his early infancy. Struggling to look after his two siblings, Wing's father decided to send him to the Methodist Babies' Home in South Yarra, where he was brought up amongst orphans, ill children and toddlers taken from problem homes.
Having returned to live with his father during his boyhood, Wing initially struggled to acclimatise to life with his family. He went to a local school, however, and began to develop an interest in sport and world affairs. By the time of the Games in 1956, he was deeply troubled by the cracks appearing in the Olympic Movement. Speaking decades afterwards, he said that the 'Blood In The Water' match stirred him to action. He turned to an old adage, and decided that the pen could be mightier than the sword.
Mere days before the Olympic closing ceremony, Wing penned his letter. It was intended for the Olympic Organising Committee, and remained mysteriously unsigned. Wing later admitted that he didn't want to put his name to the message in case officials thought his proposition was "a dumb idea." He added the detail about his Chinese heritage, however, because he felt that it added extra gravitas to the letter, and hoped that "they might think that I was wise."
In the end, there was no need to play to the officials' prejudices. Wing posted the letter late at night so nobody could identify him as the sender, and it was picked up the following morning. It was passed on to senior Olympic officials, making a particular impression on the Chairman of the Olympic Organising Committee, Wilfrid Kent Hughes. Soon enough, Wing's ideas were signed off by the International Olympic Committee. The most important words of the letter read thus: "During the Games, there will be only one nation."
Wing's message burned bright with idealism, and his conviction touched even the hardest of hearts. "War, politics and nationalities will be forgotten," the letter continued. "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part." To realise this vision of Olympic togetherness, Wing proposed that athletes should participate in the closing ceremony, a move which was unprecedented at the time. Rather than marching with their teammates and compatriots, he suggested that they stand shoulder to shoulder with each other. This would provide the world with a show of global unity, and remind people that the Olympics should be a platform for international friendship as opposed to a battlefield for geopolitical strife.
On the morning of the Olympic finale, Wing had heard nothing about any proposed changes to the closing ceremony. He assumed that his letter had been ignored, and went back to his daily chores. He went from crestfallen to elated, however, when he saw the newspapers. There, printed on the front and back, was his letter. His proposals had been adopted, and athletes from around the world were ready to close the Games arm in arm.
The closing ceremony went ahead, and was hailed as a symbolic and sporting success. In the media storm that followed, Wing sent a second letter to Wilfrid Kent Hughes. This time, he had signed his name, though he asked that he remain anonymous and without personal credit. It was only when a university student uncovered his letter, three decades later, that Wing was publicly acknowledged as the 'boy' who had saved the Olympic ideal.
It is no exaggeration to say that Wing rescued the Olympics. Though the Games have never been free of politics, they have never been as damaged as they were prior to the closing ceremony of 1956. In a climate of fear and fraught relations, Wing inspired a gesture which would revitalise the principles of fairness, good sportsmanship and common interest. In the spirit of global unity, men and women of all nations walk side by side at the closing ceremony to this day.