Tuesday, 7 February 2012

How Britain Re-Invented The Olympics

Next Summer the Modern Olympic Games will return to Britain For the third time. All three British Olympic Games will have been based in London: The 1908 Games at the White City, Those of 1949 at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, and the latest in Stratford in East London.

Britain’s first two Olympics made significant contributions to the movement. The 1908 games saw its marathon race produce one of the great historic losers so beloved of the British sporting public. The Italian, Dorando Pietri, finished in first place but, entering the arena in considerable distress, had been helped over the line by officials, which resulted in his disqualification, the race being awarded to the American, Johnny Hayes. There was a public outcry at this; Queen Alexandra was so moved by the plucky Italian that she presented him with a silver gilt cup in commemoration of his efforts. This race also saw the distance now used for the marathon established. The first modern marathon in the 1896 Olympics in Athens had been 24.85 miles, the distance run by Pheidippides between the battlefield at Marathon and Athens in 490BC. In 1908, the race was fixed at 26.22 miles, a distance within sight of Queen Victoria’s statue by Windsor Castle at the start, avoiding Wormwood Scrubs and finishing, after one lap of the White City, in front of the Royal Box.

In 1948 Britain, at short notice, and with few resources, put together a games that enabled the Olympic tradition to be resumed after the abandonment of the events planned for Rome in 1940. These games saw the emergence of the first modern Olympic heroine, the Dutch “flying housewife”, Fanny Blankers
Koen. By winning four gold medals, she emulated the feats of Jesse Owens on the track of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Flying housewife”, Fanny Blankers Koen


Britain’s connexion with the Olympic Games, however, goes beyond these modern
Olympiads. Arguably, the Olympics have been a feature of English sporting life since the seventeenth century. Robert Dover, a lawyer, some time between 1601 and 1612,  organised games in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, which drew on the traditions of Pre-Reformation England and the sports associated with “church ales” on feast days. Dover, however, was able to legitimise his promotion of sport in Protestant England by claiming that his games drew on the example of the sports of the much- admired Ancient Greeks and stressing their role in promoting social harmony, reinforced with an element of military training. In a collection of poems published in 1636, the games are referred to as “Olympicks.” These games, held on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun week, included running, jumping, horse-racing, hare-coursing, various forms of combat and dancing. Later on, shin-kicking was added to the repertoire. Approved of by James I, the games were stopped by the Civil War and banned under the Commonwealth, before resuming at the Restoration. However, they were abandoned again in 1852, when the land on which they had been held was enclosed. Their reputation by then had suffered considerably and they were regarded as a country festival characterised by drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. They were, however, revived in 1966 and, since then, have been held annually on the Friday after the Spring Bank Holiday.


Robert Dover’s 'Olimpick Games', from a woodcut celebrating them, 1636


A less tenuous link between Britain and the modern Olympics, however, is provided by the Much Wenlock games in Shropshire. These were the brainchild of Dr. William Penny Brookes, who was one of the leading figures in a local adult education society, the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society. He was instrumental in setting up an ”Olympian Class” to promote the moral, intellectual and physical improvement of the district, especially that of its working-class community. Prizes were to be offered for intellectual, industrial and athletic attainments. In October 1850, Much Wenlock’s first “Olympian Games” were held on the local racecourse. The core activities included athletic contests, foot races of various distances, jumping and throwing events. Alongside these, however, were also football and cricket matches and games of quoits. These early games also featured novelty events such as wheelbarrow races and a race for old women, with the prize being a pound of tea.

Dr. William Penny Brookes

At this time, the newly independent Greek state was interested in the revival of Classical Greek traditions and, in 1859, games were held in Athens. The Much Wenlock Olympic Class offered a £10 prize for the winner of the long distance race in this event. By 1860, the Much Wenlock Class had renamed itself the Much Wenlock Olympian Society and had increased the range of athletics events incorporated into its games programme. It was this Society that was visited by Baro Pierre de Coubertin in 1890. Inspired by what he saw in Shropshire, de Coubertin intensified his efforts to create a worldwide games modelled on his conception of the Olympic ideal of Ancient Greece; games that would bring together athletes from all over the world, promoting international harmony and the pursuit of excellence via the amateur ideal. The International Olympic Committee held its first meeting at the Sorbonne in 1894. Penny Brookes was invited to attend as a delegate but was prevented from doing so by ill health. He died in 1895 and was unable to see the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The Much Wenlock Games petered out after his death but were revived in 1950 and 1977. Since 1977, the Games have been held annually and are officially recognised by the British Olympic Association and The International Olympic Association. One of the mascots for the 2012 London Olympics is to be called “Wenlock.”

Next summer, for anyone who wants to see live Olympic competition but cannot secure a ticket for events in the London Olympiad, there is always the prospect of dropping into Chipping Camden or Much Wenlock. Meanwhile, those watching the beach volleyball being televised from the Horse Guards might want to ponder on what Robert Dover, William Penny Brookes and Pierre
de Coubertin would make of a modern Olympic Games.

By Dr. Peter Galliver

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article; I think that shin kicking should definitely be brought back this August.

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