Little ado about Much Wenlock, the real cradle of the Games

Not many know this but Shropshire is the setting for the modern Olympic ideal
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was 3.50pm, 10 minutes before the start of the Games, and Olympian fever was running high in Much Wenlock. Ann Smith walked into the staff room in the town's sports centre, weighed down by a bag of volleyballs, a pile of tournament schedules and a mountain of last-minute worries. One school team hadn't turned up. Some of the balls were going flat. "And the medals?" someone happened to mention. "Ah, yes, the medals!" Mrs Smith exclaimed. "Have we got enough of them to go round?"

Ten minutes later – all the teams in attendance, all the balls fully pumped, and all the medals fully accounted – Mrs Smith welcomed the world to the 115th Wenlock Olympian Games. Not that very much of the world had turned up for the opening event, the inter-school volleyball tournament. There were just the five of us on the balcony overlooking the sports hall: the man from the Independent on Sunday, the two cleaners scrubbing the floor outside the toilets and two teenage girls, one of whom was busy texting on her mobile.

It was rather different in Sydney 10 months ago when the Games of the XXVII Olympiad got under way with the women's triathlon in the picture-postcard setting next to the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. But when Mrs Smith rang her handbell and the schoolkids of Shropshire swung their arms into action, what followed in the functional confines of Much Wenlock Sports Centre, and on the Linden Fields outside, had as much to do with the Olympic movement as what happened in Sydney.

In fact, had it not been for the Olympian Games in Much Wenlock, a quaint little town 13 miles south of Shrewsbury in the rolling Shropshire countryside, the Olympic Games held in Sydney, Atlanta, Barcelona and elsewhere around the globe probably would have never taken place.

Juan Antonio Samaranch acknowledged as much when he made a pilgrimage to Much Wenlock seven years ago. "I have come because this is where the modern Olympics started," the outgoing president of the International Olympic Committee said. He also came to lay a wreath at the grave of Dr William Penny Brookes at Holy Trinity Church in Wilmore Street. "He was really the founder of the modern Olympic Games," Samaranch said.

And so he was. It was in 1850 that Brookes staged a revived version of the ancient Olympic Games in Much Wenlock – 46 years before Pierre de Coubertin did so in Athens. The French baron did so on a grander scale, of course, but it was Brookes, a doctor-cum-philanthropist from Much Wenlock, who first campaigned for an inter-national Olympic Games. In June 1881 the Greek newspaper Clio reported: "The enthusiastic Dr Brookes is endeavouring to organise an International Olympian Festival, to be held in Athens." The Greek government of the day did not want to know, but it was Brookes' passion that inspired De Coubertin to take up the cause.

As Helen Cromarty, chairman of the Wenlock Olympian Society, pointed out: "It wasn't until De Coubertin met Brookes that he even thought of pushing for an international Olympic Games. Before that, his big goal was to get sport in French schools. That is why he came to England: to go to Rugby and one or two other schools." But De Coubertin went to Much Wenlock too. And what he witnessed there in 1890 was to become a defining moment in sporting history. On his return to France, he wrote in La Revue Athletique: "If the Olympic Games still survives today it is due to Dr W P Brookes." Sadly, the good doctor did not survive long enough to see his Olympic vision materialise on the international stage. He died in December 1895, four months before the Games of the first Modern Olympiad.

The spirit of William Penny Brookes lives on – even if his legacy was somewhat underappreciated last week. With an hour to go before the opening event, no one had asked about the 2001 Wenlock Olympian Games in the town's tourist information office. "You're the first to buy a programme, too," the woman behind the desk said.

Norman Wood, the veteran president of the Wenlock Olympian Society, was not entirely surprised. "Bodies like the British Olympic Association and the International Olympic Committee know all about the Games," he said, "but I could meet people in Shropshire who don't know anything about it. We haven't got as big a name as we deserve, quite honestly." Nor as big a track, for that matter. The Linden Fields is a timeless Shropshire setting, bordered by a windmill, an avenue of elms and the "blue remembered hills" of A E Housman's poetic recall. The track there on which the athletics events are held, however, is well past its time limit. "It should have been ripped up years ago," Wood said. "It's gravel and it's only 200 metres. Seniors can't really run on it. What we need is a synthetic track. We've been turned down for a Lottery grant but we haven't given up." With such spirited defiance, the genial Wood has helped to keep the Much Wenlock Olympian Games going in the 48 years since he arrived in the town as a former centre-forward for Oldham Athletic and the first PE master at William Brookes School.

Ann Smith has kept the Wenlock Olympian flame burning too. For all her fretting, her volleyball tournament turned out to be a roaring success. The one-woman organisation proved flawless. The kids went home happy. And the home team she coaches, as a member of the PE staff at William Brookes School, won the girls' competition.

The William Brookes boys had to settle for silver medals but left enriched by priceless words of wisdom from Mrs Smith. "We might never be up there with the other Olympics," she told her teams, "but if you think about it, our own Olympics holds true the basic ideals of what it's all about.

"It's about participation and upholding the spirit of sportsmanship. Striving to do your best and respecting the efforts of your opponents are more important than winning. That might have got lost in the modern-day Olympics but we try to uphold it in our own little way." William Brookes could not have put it any better.

Comments