Fun and Games in Shropshire

Dave Hadfield finds the Olympic flame burning in Much Wenlock

The Olympic flame went out yesterday in the little Shropshire town where, symbolically at least, it was first lit 145 years ago.

Much Wenlock's solid historical claim to be the birthplace of the modern Olympic movement was illuminated for the first time this year by the arrival of the genuine Olympic flame en route to the European Youth Olympics in Bath.

A town of around 3,000 people - not a village, unless you wish to enter into a long and indignant correspondence with its mayor - was understandably proud in its own quiet way of this extra endorsement of its credentials.

It was a little embarrassing, therefore, when the flame, burning in what looked like one of the grander type of pub ashtrays, spluttered and died before yesterday afternoon's events had got into their stride.

There was no real need for panic. The flame, delivered by a relay of runners last week, was kept alive by what might be termed the Olympic pilot light in the back of the marquee. A swift decoke of the ashtray and a top-up with lighter fuel, and Wenlock's Olympic tradition was burning as brightly as ever.

The local doctor, William Penny Brookes, beat Baron de Coubertin by almost half a century in reviving the ancient Olympiad. In 1850 he founded the Wenlock Olympian Society, and their first games in the October of that year involved a mixture of conventional athletics and country sports such as tilting, where galloping horsemen removed dangling rings with lances. The ladies' foot race was for a prize of a pound of tea and there were also football and cricket tournaments.

Brookes was, for his time, a radical visionary in believing that sport was for what he called "all grades of men" and not just for the leisured classes. Not content with lighting the flame of that ideal in one of the quieter corners of a county notable, according to A E Houseman, for nothing happening, he strove until the end of his life, exactly 100 years ago, to spread the message.

Brookes' nagging persuaded the King of Greece to authorise an Olympian Games in 1859 and the National Olympian Association, in which Brookes was the driving force, organised a games at Crystal Palace in 1866. Those games were notable for the 18-year-old W G Grace winning the hurdles on the same day as completing a double century at The Oval.

Brookes' real success, however, was in firing de Coubertin - young, rich and aristocratic - with his vision. He visited the Wenlock Games in 1890, and the first official modern Olympics took place a year after Brookes' death.

The good doctor would have been delighted by the 109th Games - there have been gaps for wars and occasional lack of organisational impetus - this weekend. Although serious athletes tend to jib at an outdoor 200- metre track, there was a full programme of junior and senior athletics, as well as fencing, archery, five-a-side football and clay-pigeon shooting.

The rural origins of the Games are still evident in the event that involves throwing a 35-pound lump of rock, and Much Wenlock remains the only place where you can win an Olympic medal for crown green bowls.

Since 1980, the Games - which had shrunk to being a purely parochial occasion - have once more begun to attract competitors from a wider radius. "They've come from Andover and from Southport," said the Games secretary, Norman Wood. "And there's an Australian here somewhere."

While it might not be exactly Atlanta, the flame still burns in Much Wenlock, as acknowledged last year by the great Olympic power-broker himself.

Juan Antonio Samaranch arrived a week too late to witness the Games, but came to pay tribute to Brookes and the continuity of his vision.

"Press people like yourself asked him why he had come to Much Wenlock," Wood said. "He told them: 'This is where it all started'."

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