Carrying the torch for Much Wenlock: Baron de Coubertin's Olympics were born after he visited a similar competition held in the Shropshire hills. Andy Martin reports on the games which still survive today
Baron Pierre de Coubertin was not the originator of the modern Olympics. He stole the idea from us. Like most good things - cricket, football and so on - we started it, then let other countries do it better or, at least, bigger.
The British de Coubertin is Dr William Penny Brookes. Born in Wenlock in 1809, he was an eminent Victorian, a reformer and visionary, not only a GP but also a JP and an MP who built the town's corn exchange and brought in gas lighting and the railway. (Axed a century later by Beeching, its station now serves as the bowls pavilion.) In 1841 he established the Agricultural Reading Society, from which the Wenlock Olympian Society was formed in 1850 to 'promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings of skill in athletic exercises, and proficiency in intellectual and industrial attainments.'
In other words, he wanted to keep the men out of the ale-houses. Dr Brookes introduced laurel crowns and medallions bearing a likeness of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and recalled classical ideals of healthy minds in healthy bodies. But Rome, or in this case Athens, could not be built in a day, and the beginnings of the Olympics were modest enough.
While today Wenlock boasts a pentathlon, a triathlon, a seven- mile road race, archery, karate and football, in the 1850s the games had a more rustic feel. The Shrewsbury Chronicle of 10 August 1858 carried this report about the pig chase: 'The pig was started in the middle of the field and led its pursuers over hedge and ditch right into town where it took ground in the cellar of Mr Blakeway's house and where it was captured by a man named William Hill.'
The same newspaper of 3 October 1851, reporting the women's pound of tea race, noted that the competitors 'acquitted themselves remarkably well, considering the disadvantage under which the ladies laboured in not being provided with the 'Bloomer Costume', attired in which they would have run capitally. A Mrs Mary Speake bore off the prize - woman's much loved herb.' Other highlights of the early games included a blindfold wheelbarrow race, quoits, and a 'jingling' match (although exactly what jingling was is something of a mystery).
Dr Brookes introduced the pentathlon in 1868 - high-jump, long-jump, half-mile race, shot- put and climbing a 70ft rope - and the Wenlock Olympics progressively put more emphasis on track and field disciplines devoid of pigs and tea. One tradition that continued into the 20th century is tilting. The best-known tilter in history is, of course, Don Quixote, who tilted at windmills.
So it is appropriate that on the hill overlooking the Linden Fields where the Wenlock Olympics are held, behind the William Brookes school, stands a ruined windmill that looks as if it sustained a direct hit. For the main event, men on horseback attempted to run their lances through small rings suspended from a crossbar. Tilting was recently revived in honour of the Princess Royal when she attended the Games in 1990, the centenary of the visit to Wenlock of Baron de Coubertin.
In 1890 Dr Brookes gave Wenlock's full red-carpet treatment to the Baron. Over the entrance to the Linden Fields was an arch of flowers bearing the words 'Welcome to Baron Pierre de Coubertin and Prosperity to France', and a gold-leafed oak tree was planted in his honour. De Coubertin attributed France's defeat by the Prussians two decades earlier to the physical degeneracy of his compatriots and was looking for ways to improve their physical fitness. Dr Brookes and Wenlock showed him the way.
Brookes helped to set up other Olympic championships, notably at Crystal Palace in 1866 where W G Grace won the 400 yards hurdles. He also donated a pounds 10 prize to the 1859 games in Athens, organised by Zappas, while the king of Greece in turn donated a cup for the Brookes pentathlon at the Shrewsbury Olympics held in 1877.
Brookes lobbied for the revival of the Olympic Games in Greece, but his own National Olympic Association struggled against the snobbery of the Amateur Athletic Club, set up specifically to preserve upper-class athletes from contamination by Brookes's lower orders. So he welcomed the presence and support of the French aristocrat. De Coubertin liked Brookes's idea so much that he not only adopted it but later claimed it as his own when he formed the Congress for the Revival of the Olympic Games in Paris in 1894.
In an article in La Revue Athletique of December 1890, 'Les Jeux Olympiques a Much Wenlock', de Coubertin at first paid a glowing tribute to his English precursor: 'If the Olympic Games, which modern Greece has not been able to revive, live again today, it is not to a Greek that we are indebted but rather to W P Brookes. For it is he who inaugurated them 40 years ago and it is still he, now aged 82, alert and vigorous, who continues to organise and inspire them.' Brookes did not live to see his dream come true in Athens in 1896. By 1908 de Coubertin had taken to publishing articles entitled 'Why I Revived the Olympic Games', while his 1931 memoirs omit all references to Brookes and Zappas. De Coubertin may have run with the torch, but Brookes lit the flame.
Wenlock has a deep and abiding sense of its own history. It has even given its name to a geological era - the Wenlockian period. As one local woman said to me: 'Everything started here.' She was talking about the Industrial Revolution - Iron Bridge and Coalbrooke Dale are just down the road - and the sporting revolution that started here too. Norman Wood, secretary to the Wenlock Olympian Society since 1977, says: 'It was Brookes's vision that set the Games apart. De Coubertin was a Johnny-come-lately who simply hijacked the idea.' He notes that the Wenlock Olympics still attract up to 1,000 competitors, many of them youngsters on the way up and some older athletes who are on the way down.
Many of A E Housman's poems in A Shropshire Lad celebrate the sporting character of the area. 'To An Athlete Dying Young' recalls:
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder high.
Premature deaths, murders, war and hangings tend to cut short the amusements of Housman's pleasure-loving Shropshire men and maids. But one of his elegiac lines seems to refer poignantly to the late Dr Brookes: Runners whom renown outran.
In the opening cricket match on Friday, the Wenlock Olympians lost by 23 runs to the Pengwern All Stars. Gold medals were awarded not just to the 11 All Stars but to the umpire, scorer and the tea lady. There was a rumour that Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, might turn up to give out the medals.
In his absence, Roy Dower, the Wenlock captain, made a splendidly Olympian speech in which he congratulated the victors on 'great individual performances', adding that, 'the Olympics is not about individuals, it's about bringing people together'. But his conclusion seemed pure Housman: 'We hope this Olympics will still be running when we're all dead and buried in the graveyard over the hill and a better scorer will be keeping our score.'
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