OLYMPIC GAMES: Why the British will win everything again

Keith Elliott remembers the good old days at the Cotswold Olympicks when drawing blood decided some events
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The Independent Online
Once again Brits took all the medals at the Olympics. Americans, Germans, Russians and Australians came nowhere. When it came to true Olympic sports such as back-swording, skin-kicking, and spurning the barre, Johnny Foreigner did not get a look in.

Things may be a little different in Atlanta over the coming fortnight. But sports his- torians will point to the fact that the Modern Games is an upstart event running for a mere 100 years - and only every four years at that - whereas the Cotswold Olympicks dates back to 1612.

Held annually on the first weekend after Whitsun on Dover's Hill near Chipping Campden, a picture-postcard village at the north end of the Cotswolds, this is not some local fete cashing in on Olympic fervour. Though the feats performed these days would scarcely be classed as Olympian, this unique event has just as much right (and maybe more) to use the name and the flag.

After all, it was set up with official permission from King James I and has continued through the reigns of 14 monarchs, once attracting crowds of up to 30,000. Some sports, such as coursing, cock-fighting, quarter- staff fencing, vaulting and the ladies smock race, no longer take place, but the spirit of Robert Dover lives on.

A barrister, he set up the Games "for training of the youth in manly sports and for the harmless mirthe and jollitie of the neighbourhood". He must have been quite a guy, for contemporary documents describe him variously as jovial, generous, mirth-making, ingenious, heroic and noble (eat your heart out, Juan Antonio Samaranch).

Annalis Dubrensia, published in 1636, has poems of praise to Dover from such worthies as Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, while Shakespearean references in The Merry Wives of Windsor ("How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard he was out-run at Cotsall.") and the wrestling scene in As You Like It almost certainly refer to Dover's Games.

Like the Modern Olympics, the Cotswold version has had a few breaks in transmission. It stopped for a while when Dover died in 1652, restarting some time around 1700. Not everyone approved. One minister railed against "the evil and pernicious consequences of Whitsun Ales (namely acts of foolery and buffoonery, and relics of paganism such as Morris dances and dancing round the maypole)".

The sport changed, too. Sack-racing, quoit-throwing, bowling and jingling became popular. The latter was performed in a large roped circle, and a jingler, wearing small bells, had to avoid capture by nine or 10 blindfolded contestants. The captor (or the jingler if he stayed free) won half a guinea. Sounds better than dressage or figure-skating.

Others continued right through, and are still part of the Games today. One was backswording, where two fighters had their left arms bound to their thighs and fought with cudgels or wooden swords, the winner being the first to draw blood from his opponent's head.

In shin-kicking, descended from wrestling bouts which were often five or nine-a-side, the idea is to kick at an opponent's shins to knock him off balance. It was often "played" with steel-capped boots and competitors toughened their legs by hitting them with planks or even hammers. Today's effete shin-kickers protect their legs with straw and lack the malice that must have made the sport such a popular spectacle 300 years ago.

What killed the Cotswold Olympicks for a century was not a decline in sporting interest, but rowdy Midlanders. Navvies building the new Worcester to Oxford railway took much of the blame as card sharks, pickpockets and thieves infiltrated the Cotswold event. One year almost every stall and tent was levelled and robbed. The site became, it was said, "a meeting place of the lowest characters, merely for debauchery... the whole district has become demoralised".

It was revived, without the debauchery, in 1951 as a one-off for the Festival of Britain, and in 1965 the Games itself was brought back. Events such as climbing a pole for a leg of mutton, dipping for oranges and dancing marathons no longer entertain the crowds, but the village committee which organises the event has tried to retain the essence of Dover's vision.

The Games, which takes place on a natural amphitheatre in the 500-acre Dover's Field (now owned by the National Trust) has a Champion of the Hill event which includes a standing long jump, hammer-throwing, spurning the barre (like tossing a caber) and putting the shot. There is also a team event, which is somewhere between It's A Knockout and Tiswas. Andrew Greenwood, the co-chairman, defends this from accusations that it is frivolous. "We are doing what Dover was doing: entertaining the crowds, but in a modern way."

Greenwood, a local estate agent, added: "It's always difficult to get people to take part in shin-kicking, and some of the other old events such as back-swording are done as exhibition events because we don't actually want to draw blood."

Many other original elements are still there: the recreation of Dover's Castle, sack-racing, jugglers, Morris dancers, puppet shows, clowns and stilt walkers. When it all finishes, there is even a torchlight procession carrying the "Olympick flame" into Chipping Campden to start Scuttlebrook Wake, a day-long fair.

Francis Burns, a university lecturer who is Chipping Campden's town crier, wrote a dissertation about the Cotswold Olympicks. Burns, who later produced a booklet on their history, said: "In the long catalogue of British sports and pastimes, there is nothing like these Games for their setting, their continuity, their forms of entertainment, and for the literary responses to them." And, of course, for the fact that the British always win.

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