Britain's First Olympian

The roots of the modern Games can be traced to the playing fields of England and Rugby's headmaster Thomas Arnold. Chris McGrath explains why
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The Independent Online

As a return to sporting roots, Australia versus the Barbarians at Wembley tomorrow barely disturbs the surface – despite being billed as a reprise of the rugby union final at the first London Olympics, 100 years ago.

By all accounts, it was not an occasion that seemed particularly worth preserving. Only two teams had entered, and Great Britain – represented by the county champions, Cornwall – were outscored six tries to one by Australia on a foggy day in White City. Plus ça change, you might say. The Cornishmen appear to have had difficulty handling the ball, which kept landing in the swimming pool. Latent in today's game, however, is a still more slippery sporting heirloom.

In itself, it may seem an esoteric legacy. Ultimately, however, it places the whole 2012 hoopla in fresh perspective, and measures the fidelity (or otherwise) of the modern custodians of Olympic ideals.

If nothing else, it is a marvel of serendipity. For not content with giving its name to rugby itself, a British independent school has rediscovered a genealogical claim to the modern Olympic Games as well. In April, Lord Coe will unveil a plaque at Rugby, commemorating its greatest headmaster, Thomas Arnold, as the unsuspected inspiration to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who revived the Games at Athens in 1896.

Very sensibly, the enthusiastic, engaging man now seated in Arnold's study is wary of simplifying the connection. As a historian himself, Patrick Derham recognises the miscellaneous influences on character and behaviour, and acknowledges the "mythology" and "deification" of Arnold. But he is satisfied that a legitimate lineage links de Coubertin to Arnold – or, at the very least, to romantic misapprehensions about him.

Objective confirmation comes from John Lucas, associate professor of physical education at Pennsylvania State University. He describes Arnold as "one of the most important, least understood personalities in the evolution of the modern Olympics – the single most important influence on the life and thought of Pierre de Coubertin."

As headmaster from 1828 until his death in 1842, Arnold certainly distilled a wholesome revolution in British schools. But de Coubertin was only born in 1863, and was 12 before coming across a translation of Tom Brown's School days – Thomas Hughes' classic portrait of boyhood under Arnold. De Coubertin, remember, grew up among a people whose amour-propre had been eroded by a century of upheaval – three monarchies, two empires, three republics. Following new humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War, he read Hippolyte Taine's Notes Sur L'Angleterre, an envious, admiring study of the flourishing imperial culture over the Channel.

Taine, too, was intrigued by Arnold, not least his role in the evolution of this essential concept, "gentleman". Taine used the English word: "In France, we do not have the word, because we do not have the thing it describes." And he quoted Arnold, writing to friends from France, lamenting the "total absence" of anyone with the education or sentiments of a gentleman.

Surely this snobbish anguish could not found an Empire? Perhaps not. But while French education stagnated, the changes associated with Charles Kingsley and Arnold – the umbrella term is "muscular Christianity" – certainly expanded the pool of autonomous, socially plausible young men from which the dominions could draw their governing class.

During the 1880s, de Coubertin toured British schools and universities, and compiled L'Education En Angleterre. He had discovered a pedagogical mission, and would forever revere Arnold as the prophet of sport's fortifying role in the character of the young.

As it happens, there is little evidence of Arnold's interest in sport beyond the introduction of gymnasium equipment to Rugby in 1835. But during the decades after his death, sport was eagerly grafted on to his philosophy by disciples at other schools. The idea was to end up with an all-round man – one like Rupert Brooke, say, who finished top of Rugby's 1st XI bowling averages (and bottom, admittedly, of the batting averages) before achieving tragic immortality as a war poet.

De Coubertin airily pronounced that Arnold "would not have been an Englishman had he not loved sport". Indeed, Arnold had given "the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. The cause was swiftly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England." By instilling moral and social strength, sport shaped a nation's destiny. "How often, at dusk, alone in the vast Gothic chapel at Rugby, with my eyes fixed on the funeral slab inscribed simply with the name of Thomas Arnold, have I thought to myself that here was the cornerstone of the British Empire?"

In 1927, at the ruins of Olympia, a Greek dignitary unveiled a monument to the revival of the Games. "As he honoured me by recalling past events, my thoughts turned to Kingsley and Arnold," de Coubertin recalled. "And to the chapel at Rugby where the great clergyman rests who was, as I see it, one of the founders of athletic chivalry."

Naturally, the modern Olympics swelled from many different tributaries – none quainter than Dr William Penny Brookes, who in 1850 founded the Much Wenlock Olympian Games in rural Shropshire. De Coubertin visited Brookes and was much taken with his idyll, an eccentric link between, on the one hand, the "Cotswold Olympicks" – first staged in Jacobean times, and still the place to see shin-kicking contests – and the National Olympian Games at Crystal Palace, in 1886, when W G Grace found a substitute fielder at The Oval while he dashed off to win the 440-yard hurdles.

De Coubertin also became an energetic evangelist for rugby, refereeing France's first international, though the game disappeared from the Olympics after 1924. But while their confluence was brief, the story of rugby provides a valuable foil to the one now being told about the Olympics.

Near the proposed site for the Olympian plaque at Rugby is another celebrated engraving, describing how William Webb Ellis, in 1823, "with a fine disregard for the rules of football", had the pioneering temerity to pick up the ball and run.

This episode is traced to only an uncorroborated memoir in the school magazine, 57 years after the "event". What cannot be challenged, however, is the fact Rugby was central to the codification of a game evolving from a variety of primitive, local traditions. In a sense, it does not really matter precisely where myth meets reality: Webb Ellis offers a meaningful snapshot of the game's emergence from many different, chaotic stimulants.

Much the same might be said of the new plaque. The fact that de Coubertin's Arnold was a sentimental construct does not alter the fact that aspirations associated with his name were absorbed by the Olympic movement. It is akin to the remark attributed to Wellington about the Battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton. Scholars have vigorously questioned this one, too, but its longevity implies an authentic point.

"This golden age of athletic chivalry, of the amateur sportsman, it's interesting whether that ever existed," Derham admits. "But it seems absolutely clear that what de Coubertin saw, what he read about, what he understood, was confirmed in his mind by the visits he made to Rugby. And there still are lessons one can learn – lessons of sportsmanship, of chivalry – values that were highly prized by Britain at the time.

"We've come a long way since. But I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of, that schools like this one were hugely influential in shaping de Coubertin's thinking. There's much to celebrate, with the Olympics coming back to Britain. I'm not sure we would necessarily want to see Arnoldian virtues being praised by Boris Johnson. But perhaps he would have been better talking, not about ping pong coming home, but actually the Olympic Games coming home."

The plaque will quote de Coubertin's reflection on the Olympic Congress at Le Havre: "It was to Arnold that we turned, more or less consciously, for inspiration." But you do not have to take Derham's word for it. Last month Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president no less, told the Royal Society of Arts that "Britain is the cradle of modern sport, home of 'fair play'. Pierre de Coubertin was deeply influenced by British sport, and the ideas of William Penny Brookes and Thomas Arnold."

"De Coubertin created his own ideals, but the vision has come from here," says Derham. "For a historian, to unpick it is fascinating. The delicious thing about history is that nobody can agree exactly what it was Arnold did. But this was a pretty grim place when he came, and he turned it around."

Whatever his role in gilding Arnold's reputation, Thomas Hughes has left one very familiar legacy. Flashman, drafted as a bully in Tom Brown's, was subsequently fleshed out as an imperial adventurer by George MacDonald Fraser. In one of his stories, Flashman reads Tom Brown's Schooldays – an audacious literary artifice, this, a fictional character reading about himself in a real book.

And something similar, perhaps, is happening here. The margins between fact and fiction may have become frayed. But as Arnold himself once wrote: "If history has no truths to teach, its facts are little worth."

1908 London Olympics in numbers

533 The length, in metres, of the White City stadium track, as compared to the standard 400m, meaning that the mile race involved three, not four, laps of the track.

385 The number of yards added to the 26 miles of the marathon to ensure that the race would finish beneath the Royal Nursery windows.

0 The number of Swedes who took part in the opening ceremony after organisers forgot to fly their national flag above the stadium.

60 The age of Swede Oscar Swahn, who won two golds in the running deer shooting event. In Antwerp 12 years later, he became, at 72, the oldest ever Olympic medalist when he won silver in the same event.

24 The number of sporting disciplines represented at the 1908 Games, including rugby, tug of war and jeu de paume.

22 The number of nations who took part in 1908, compared with 205 in Beijing 2008.