Curious questions: Did the modern Olympics really start in Much Wenlock?

Martin Fone traces the history of the Olympics and examines the contribution of Shropshire doctor William Penny Brookes.

The 32nd Olympiad opened in Tokyo on July 23, a year later than scheduled. With more than 11,000 athletes, 33 different sports and more than 330 events, it’s far removed from the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896. Then, just 241 athletes, all male, from fourteen countries, principally Greece, Germany, France and Great Britain, took part in forty-three events.

Long-distance swimmers were taken by boat out to sea and left to make their way back to shore, the Hungarian champion, Alfréd Hajos, winner of the 100 and 1,200-metre events, remarking that his will to live completely overcame his desire to win.

The pièce de résistance of the Games retraced Pheidippides’ original route to Athens with news of the victory over the Persians at Marathon and was won, fittingly, by a Greek, Spyridon Lewis, who, to the delight of 100,000 spectators, finished seven minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

By winning the triple jump on April 6, James Connolly from America became the first Olympic champion for more than one and a half millennium.

The original Olympic games, part of a cycle of Panhellenic Games, were a mix of religion and athletics, celebrated in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia every four years. Although the first games cannot be dated precisely, an inscription found on the site lists all the winners of the quadrennial foot race from 776 BCE. The first Olympic champion, according to tradition, was a cook from Elis called Coroebus.

The Games flourished in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, success bringing rewards and fame to both competitors and their city-states, their triumphs illustrated in statues and victory odes.

Over the centuries as Greece was absorbed into the Roman empire, their importance waned and their fate was sealed with the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire and the suppression of what were seen as pagan cults in the late 4th century CE. They had had a good run, lasting over a millennium and becoming the epitome of sporting achievement.

What happened to their legacy?

Tokyo Olympics logo

The Cotswold Olimpick Games, established in 1612 by a local landowner, Robert Dover, was held in Chipping Campden on the Thursday and Friday before Whitsun. Featuring rural pastimes and sports including running, throwing, jumping, wrestling, horse racing and the famous World Shinkicking Championships, it provided ample opportunities to eat, drink and be merry.

It nonetheless had a chequered history. Suspended at the outset of the Civil War in 1642, it was revived after the restoration of King Charles II, running uninterrupted for nearly two centuries until 1862, when it fell victim to a dispute over land enclosure.

Despite several attempts to resurrect the tradition, the games did not get back on their feet again until 1963 and, with one or two exceptions, have been re-established as fixture in the local calendar.

Sadly, the pandemic has put paid to plans to hold the 2021 games, but the organising committee are optimistic that they can celebrate the 410th anniversary of what the British Olympic Association has dubbed ‘the first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic movement’ on Friday, June 3, next year.

Over in France, L’Olympiade de la République was a short-lived attempt to emulate the ancient games, held annually between 1796 and 1798. Its most lasting legacy was the introduction of the metric system into sport.

Gustaf Johann Schartau organised the Olympiska spelen in the Swedish town of Ramlősa in 1834 and again in 1836 before moving it to the Swedish capital in 1843, drawing crowds of some 25,000. Attempts to establish them on a more permanent footing were soon abandoned.

Apart from studying medicine in London, Padua, and Paris, William Penny Brookes was content to live out his life in the house in which he was born, 7, Brook Street in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock. He took over his father’s medical practice in 1831.

Determined to improve the lot of the locals, not only their health, Brookes established a lending library, the Agricultural Reading Society, in 1841. Nine years later, he founded the Wenlock Olympian Class to promote, by way of annual games, ‘the moral, physical, and intellectual development of the inhabitants of then town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially the working classes’.

Much Wenlock Olympics

The first games were held at the local racecourse over two days in October 1850, a mix of athletics and country pursuits. The 1851 games were much larger and attracted competitors from a wider area, a contemporary newspaper report noting that Poyner of Albrighton had won three events, Badger of Wolverhampton had come second in the ‘half-mile foot race’ and that Mainwaring of Birmingham had triumphed in the ‘leaping in distance’ event.

Brookes had an eye for generating publicity. A band led a procession of flag bearers, competitors, and officials through Much Wenlock’s streets to the racecourse and he ensured that the programme included novelty events.

A wheelbarrow race was held where the competitors were blindfolded and there was a race for the old ladies of the town, the prize being a welcome pound of tea.

Brookes, though, had greater aspirations. In 1859, the society sent £10 to help fund the Olympic Games, held in Athens’ city square, which drew athletes from Greece and the Ottoman empire. The winner of the ‘long’ or ‘sevenfold’ race was presented with the Wenlock prize. Two further games were held in the city, in 1870 and 1875, but the initiative stalled.

Brookes’ next initiative, through the newly established Wenlock Olympian Society, was to promote the Shropshire Olympian games, which were to be held in a different town in the county every two years, establishing the rotational concept adopted by the Olympic movement today.

Then came the National Olympic Association which he co-founded with John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of the German Gymnasium in London. Its first event, a three-day festival held at Crystal Palace in 1866, attracted some 10,000 spectators and spawned the creation of the Amateur Athletic Club. Much Wenlock hosted the fourth event in 1874.

Determined to see physical education as part of the national curriculum, Brookes contacted Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Congress of Physical Education, and invited him to attend the Much Wenlock games of 1890.

Arriving by train on October 22nd the Baron watched the games and was guest of honour at a dinner at the Raven Hotel. It was here that Brookes revealed his dream to revive the Olympic Games in Athens, an ambition de Coubertin shared.

Sadly, Brookes died in December 1895, little more than four months before the opening of the first modern Olympiad, organised by de Coubertin’s International Olympic Committee.

Of Brookes’ contribution, the Baron wrote ‘if the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr William Penny Brookes’.

While the organisers had hoped to hold the 134th Wenlock Olympian Games on the weekend of July 10th and 11th, the delay in lifting Covid restrictions has meant it has had to be rescheduled until late September. Let us hope they take place. Some traditions are worth preserving.