Ian Weightman

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Tracing the Olympic tradition back to The Cotswolds and the tiny Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock

The decision of the IOC to stage the 30th Olympiad in London means that the British capital will be able to join-in The Cotswolds' Olimpick celebrations, in 2012…

Robert Dover's inaugural Olimpick Games were staged on a Cotswold hillside in 1612 "By Royal Approval" of King James I.  And despite a long and chequered history stretching over almost four centuries, they still survive to this day – providing a remarkable link between the Olympics of ancient Greece, and the modern Olympic Games of today.

Dover, educated in Latin and Greek, would almost certainly have read Pindar's odes on the Olympics.  And the games he created in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds were also commemorated in verse, in the poem Annalia Dubrensia, featuring 34 congratulatory verses by writers of that time.

The extravagant event which he organised each year included swordplay, running and leaping, horse racing, spurning (similar to tossing the caber), and throwing the sledge (hammer).  Shin-kicking which still draws a smile, and the crowds, to this day probably grew out of wrestling competitions.

Competitors came from far and wide, and Dover's fame spread to such an extent that even a town in the New World – Dover, New Hampshire – was given his name.  The 17th century equivalent of the President of the IOC, Dover operated his games not so much to the motto of "Swifter, Higher, Stronger", but to a word-play on his own name: "Do Ever Better".

The Civil War, and rise of the Puritans, brought the annual games to a halt, but they appeared again after the Restoration.  By the 19th century, they had lost much of their shine; and in 1929 Dover's Hill, near to Chipping Campden, was put up for sale.

'Saved' by local artist, Frederick Landseer, the hill hosted an Olimpick Games as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and Games have been played there ever since.  Further details can be found on www.olympickgames.co.uk, or in the latest book on the subject: The First Ever English Olympick Games by Celia Haddon (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004).

Dover's Olimpicks also proved to be an inspiration to others in Britain – including Dr William Penny Brookes, who formed the Olympian Society in the Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock.

A Penny for your sports

Britain's contribution to the modern Olympic movement can also be traced to a tiny market town in Shropshire, which boasts both a small museum and a tourist trail around 'the town where it all began'.

At first sight, a market town in Shropshire might appear to be an unlikely starting point for the world's biggest festival of sport.  But it was in Much Wenlock, in 1850, that Dr William Penny Brookes first established the basis for an 'Olympian Society' which, in turn, laid the foundation for Baron Pierre de Coubertin's modern Olympic Games.

Born in Much Wenlock in 1809, Dr Brookes studied medicine in London, Paris and Padua before returning to Shropshire to take over his father's medical practice.  Concerned by the lack of educational opportunities for the working classes in the town, Brookes founded the Agricultural Reading Society - one class of which was the 'Olympian Class' (later called the Wenlock Olympian Society) which was set up for "the promotion of moral, physical and intellectual improvement".

The first annual Olympian Games in Much Wenlock was accompanied by much pomp and pageantry, including a procession of flag bearers.  The sports were both classical and traditional, but also included fun events to amuse the crowds - such as 'blind wheelbarrow racing', 'an old woman's race for a pound of tea' and 'chasing a pig through the town'.  By the 1870s, however, the Games had become dominated by track and field events.  Medals were presented to the winners and the champion 'Tilter' was crowned with an olive wreath.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin visited the Olympian Games in 1890, and duly used them as his blueprint for the Olympics.  He later acknowledged: "And of the Olympic Games, which modern Greece has not yet revived, it is not a Greek to whom one is indebted, but rather Dr. W.P.Brookes".  In 1994 - as part of the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic movement - the President of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch came to Much Wenlock "because this is where the modern Olympics started".  And in 1995, the Wenlock Olympian Society embarked on a scheme that would help to put the town on the sports map of Great Britain.

The result is a 2,100-metres Olympian Trail, which starts and finishes at Much Wenlock Museum, containing a fine display of artefacts relating to the Olympian Games.  Specially produced bronze markers in the pavements - and a leaflet highlighting the route - then guide visitors around the town, pointing out all of the sites and buildings associated with the story.

For further details, visit www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk.

The 2012 Games’ mascot is “Wenlock” – suitably named after where it all began.

It’s even possible to follow Wenlock on Twitter at @iamwenlock.


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