True Olympic spirit alive in town that created the games

World's media flock to Much Wenlock in Shropshire to witness the event that inspired a global phenomenon, writes Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

Did I ever mention my Olympian debut? It was back in the summer of 1997. After two miles of the seven-mile road race I was lying in third position, thinking: "Just wait till I get home with an Olympian medal to show off to my club-mates at Blaydon Harriers."

When the course took a sharp right turn, the dreamy vision of ascending the podium was replaced by the sobering reality of a climb stretching skywards with the vertiginous aspect of the Eiger's north face. It was actually Wyke Hill, of "the blue remembered hills" about which AE Housman waxed with poetic lyricism in A Shropshire Lad.

There was to be no Olympian gold, silver or bronze. I faded to the ranks of the also-rans, finishing 18th overall, eighth in the senior men's section, in a time of 45min 14sec. Still, at least I could say that I was an Olympian.

Hakan Sawermark could say the same yesterday, after paying his £7 and entering the seven-mile road race on day three of the 125th Wenlock Olympian Games. A 70m javelin thrower in his youth and an announcer at the Swedish track and field championships, he had stumbled across the Much Wenlock Olympian story on the internet on Thursday while holidaying with his wife, Randi Evers. As a 56th birthday present, she arranged an entry for him.

After crossing the line in 63min 4sec, finishing 113rd out of 182 runners, the man from Boras, the one-time home of Carolina Kluft, the Olympic heptathlon champion of 2004, was in a state of some disbelief. "At last I'm an Olympian," Sawermark said. "It's going to be a very good pint this evening."

They have been making Olympians in Much Wenlock, a gem of a market town in the middle of the rolling Shropshire countryside, for 160 years now. Over the course of the weekend the 2011 edition of the Wenlock Olympian Games attracted considerable interest around the globe yet scant attention within these shores.

"We've had NBC Television from America filming," said Chris Cannon, the genial chairman of the Wenlock Olympian Society, taking a break from programme-selling duties outside the entrance to William Brookes School – which, with the adjacent Much Wenlock Leisure Centre and Linden Field, formed the hub of the action for the 22 events contested. "We were in the New York Times on Thursday. We were in the Washington Post. We've got two rival Tokyo television stations here. We've had Le Figaro from France. We've had people ringing us from Brazil.

"It's phenomenal. But the farther you get away from Much Wenlock, outside this country, the more interest there is. People in this country don't know the story, that we inspired the Olympic Games. It should be held up for everybody in this country to be proud of."

There was one notable British representative among the international media yesterday. Tony Robinson was filming for the Australian History Channel. He was telling the story of how a Wenlock man, Dr William Penny Brookes, hatched a cunning plan which developed into the Olympic Games as we know it today and will be held in London in 2012.

The former Baldrick no doubt mentioned that Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jacques Rogge's predecessor as president of the International Olympic Committee, made a pilgrimage to this Shropshire idyll to lay a wreath at Brookes' grave in Holy Trinity Church in 1994. "I have come because this is where the modern Olympics started," he said. "Dr Brookes was really the founder of the modern Olympics."

And so he was, this doctor-cum-philanthropist from Much Wenlock. It was in 1850 that Brookes staged a revived version of the ancient Greek Olympic Games in Wenlock, 46 years before Pierre de Coubertin did so in Athens.

The French baron's Games were on a far grander scale, of course, but it was Brookes who first campaigned for an international Olympics. As Helen Cromarty, one of the committee members of the Wenlock Olympian Society, pointed out: "It was by putting physical education into French schools that Coubertin wanted a place in history. That's why he came to England, to visit Rugby School and talk to Brookes. It was Brookes who had the idea of an international Olympic Games and inspired him to push for it.

"It was like Dr Pemberton and Coca-Cola. If you went into his drug store, you got soda out of a siphon, a bit of juniper juice, and you had your drink. Chap comes in and says, 'I'll buy it, I'll buy the patent.' That chap went away and put it into bottles and sold it across the world. That's what Coubertin did, really. He took Brookes' idea and put it across the world."

Coubertin visited Much Wenlock in 1890, meeting Brookes and attending the real thing of the Olympian Games. He attended the post-Games dinner at The Raven Hotel, where John Cleese filmed two scenes for Clockwise some 100 years later. On his return to France, the baron wrote in the Revue Athlétique: "The Wenlock people alone have followed the true Olympian traditions."

Brookes took those traditions to a national level, forming the National Olympian Association and staging a National Olympian Games at Crystal Palace in 1866. The 440 yards hurdles was won, in a time of 1min 10sec, by an 18-year-old called WG Grace. It was a remarkable feat considering that, technically, Grace was fielding for England against Surrey at The Oval. Having hit an unbeaten 224 the previous day, he was granted an afternoon off to race at the Palace.

Sadly, Brookes did not live to see his dream of an international Games become reality. He died in December 1895, four months before the first modern Olympics were held in Athens. Still, the legacy of William Penny Brookes lives on.

That much could be seen as Jaya Ellis-Perks pluckily picked her way around the 200m running track at the William Brookes School on Saturday, completing the 1,000m run in the junior modern biathlon. The 15-year-old collected a silver Wenlock Olympian Games medal for her efforts, cheered all the way by a small but hugely supportive crowd.

"Jaya's one of a group of 25 student we've selected to take part in an Olympic Young Reach Project," Geoff Renwick, headmaster of William Brookes School, said. "It's basically about raising the self-esteem of young people. They've researched the whole Olympian story. They've seen the record books at the Olympian Society here, been down to the French embassy to talk about Coubertin and been to the House of Lords and delivered a speech.

"They're creating a performance that's going to be held at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 20 July and a DVD that will hopefully be shown on the Olympic Park screens in London next year."

Brookes would have greatly approved. He petitioned parliament for compulsory physical education in schools and the educational establishment that bears his name is one of 15 around the globe that gather on a biennial basis under the umbrella of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee.

"The fact that the modern Olympic Games was based on the idea of a local person is an inspiration for the young people here," Renwick added. "I'm hoping that with London 2012 they will make a strong connection and get a real feel for how it all goes back to what happened here all those years ago."

There is another strong connection between the Wenlock Olympian Games and the Olympic Games. At the Wenlock Games of 1981, Alison Williamson, a ten-year-old pupil from nearby Church Stretton School, won a silver medal in the archery competition on Linden Field next to William Brookes School – a timeless setting, bordered by a windmill, an avenue of elms and a golden oak that was planted and doused in champagne in honour of Coubertin when he visited in 1890. At the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, in the grand marble Panathinaiko Stadium that was the setting for the first Games of the modern Olympics in 1896, Williams won a bronze medal in the archery.

Jonathan Edwards, who won Olympic triple jump gold in Sydney in 2000, is the vice-president of the Wenlock Olympian Society. He has penned the foreword to the excellent Born Out of Wenlock, a book that according to the subtitle concerns "William Penny Brookes and the origins of the modern Olympics", superbly written and exhaustively researched by Catherine Beale. "It was Brookes' vision which inspired Coubertin to set up the modern Olympic Games," Edwards writes.

It is an army of locals who keep Brookes' intimate, grassroots Olympian Games rolling smoothly through the years – indefatigable members of the Wenlock Olympian Society such as Chris Cannon, Helen Cromarty and Peter Thompson, the veteran secretary – without due recognition within the home country of the 2012 Olympic Games. "There are 60 million people in the country and pretty much all of them must know about London 2012," Thompson reflected. "I'm not saying we're on a par, but we've got a good story to tell. Still, we've got people like Jacques Rogge listening, and Seb Coe and Jeremy Hunt. We're not doing badly."

Wenlock the mascot: a missed opportunity

Sadly, the Wenlock Olympian Society (annual Games budget £13,000) will not be getting a cut from the merchandising of Wenlock, the garish one-eyed mascot for the 2012 Olympic Games (budget £9.3bn). Shamefully, the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay will not be passing through the Shropshire cradle of the Olympic Games.

At least Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, managed to take time off from the big news in the rest of the world to visit the 125th Wenlock Olympian Games on Saturday. He presented medals to the first three in the junior modern biathlon and addresses the assembled throng of athletes, spectators and officials.

"I'm really honoured and thrilled to be here because Wenlock is really where the modern Olympic movement started," he said. "You have made a massive contribution to all the excitement that we're going to have next year in London, which is going to be watched live by half the world's population. That all started from the inspiration that happened right here with Dr William Penny Brookes."

William Brookes

* Born in Much Wenlock in August 1809.

* Studied medicine and botany in London, Padua and Paris, going home to take over his late father's medical practice in 1831.

* Became an active member of the community, founding the Agricultural Reading Society to encourage local literacy.

* Started up the Olympian Class of that society in 1850, holding the first annual Games and making it international in 1859, opening it to "every grade of man".

* Founded the Wenlock Olympian Society in 1860 and helped launch the National Olympian Association in 1865.

* Held discussions with Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC, in Much Wenlock, with many of Brookes' ideas integral to the 1896 Olympic Games, though he himself died just beforehand.