Empire Games 1938

In  February 1938, 15 countries from what was then known as The British Empire, assembled in Sydney for what would be the last Empire Games until well after  the Second World War.  It was a huge occasion, especially as the event coincided with Sydney’s 150th anniversary. After the hard times of the Great Depression it was a chance  to celebrate.

Empire Games Sydney, 1938
Empire Games Poster

Male athletes were housed  at the Sydney Showground.  However, the women were put up in hotels, which must have made training difficult.

Empire Games village at Sydney Showground in 1938


Few people would remember that Margaret Whitlam, then Margaret  Dovey, came 6th in the 220 yards breaststroke final. Margaret was very sick with a throat infection when she competed that day.  She said later, that she would never have beaten the English favourite, but was expected to come second.

Margaret Dovey
Brave competitor Margret Dovey, who went on to marry  Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975.

Track and field Athlete Decima Norman won a gold medal for Australia in every event she competed in;  five in all, including the broad jump. That achievement has never been surpassed by an Australian athlete.

One of Australia’s Golden Girls.
Empire Games 1938 Decima Norman
Clara (Decima) Norman winning the 100 yards sprint. (News Corp)

The athletics were held on a rather make-shift track at the Sydney Cricket Ground (suspected of being too short by the British runners)

It took four months for the British teams to reach Sydney by sea. The time was extended because they called at a port twice a week for training. Afterward the Brits complained  that attending the Games had been a disaster for their athletes, including sprinting  dual gold medalist Cyril Holmes.

English runner Cyril Holmes
Cyril Holmes Empire Games 1938 (Trove)

The possibility that the trip to Australia for the British Empire Games has ruined the form of the majority of the English, Welsh and Scottish representatives has been widely discussed in athletics circles……….several failed to find their form in Sydney,  the majority have lost it since returning to England  (Truth, 28 August 1938).

Ah well, it was always difficult for travelling sporting teams in those days.  Not surprisingly, host nation Australia ended up on top of the medal tally.

Medl tlly Empire Games 1938
Medal Tally (Wikipedia)

All too soon, many of those fit young athletes would be enlisting, swapping their Empire Games blazers for army uniforms. Australian Gerald Backhouse, silver medalist in the mile in Sydney, was killed serving overseas.

If you would like to watch some newsreel footage of the Games, click  HERE.

  1. Hi Pauline,
    Thanks for posting this. My husband is related to Joyce Walker who took out the Silver Medal in the 100 yard sprint, coming second to Decima Norman. I only found out about the connection a couple of days ago and am trying to squeeze myself into her shoes, which is taking alot of imagination. I’m no athlete! It would’ve been great to be there. I was at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and we saw Cathy Freeman run in a heat.
    Best wishes,

    • Pauline

      What a wonderful family connection, Rowena. I so enjoyed the Sydney Olympics.

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