Those looking for the Olympic spirit this summer could well avoid the crowds descending on London and get over to a small field in Shropshire.
Why? If it was not for the little
town of Much Wenlock, the ‘greatest show on Earth’ would be no such thing. This
July, Much Wenlock will host the Wenlock Olympian Games,
as it has virtually every year since 1850. This annual event for amateur
athletes has been running for nearly half a century longer than the official
games. It was even the inspiration behind Pierre de Coubertin’s restoration of
the Olympics in 1896.
On a recent visit, I was shown
around the Much Wenlock Museum, newly refurbished in time for London 2012. Much
of it is dedicated to the town’s place in sporting history – a place carved out
by a Victorian doctor named William Penny Brookes. In 1850, Brookes set up the
annual Wenlock Olympian Class, aimed at ‘promoting the moral, physical and
intellectual improvement’ of local people.
Some of the events that took
place are not dissimilar to those held in the modern Olympic Games, such as a
150-yard foot hurdle race, and a three-mile bicycle race – though featuring
penny farthing bikes. The most popular and glamorous event in Brookes’ games
was tilting, in which competitors on horseback tried to hook a ring hung from a
Brookes was in regular contact
with Pierre de Coubertin, a fellow supporter of public health through sport. De
Coubertin visited the Wenlock Games in 1890. He left a convert, and set about
organising the first international Olympic Games, which took place in Athens in
1896 – sadly, four months after William Penny Brookes’ death.
This year’s games will take place
in July, on the same field used in Brookes’ day with the ‘Olympic oak’ planted
by de Coubertin in one corner. Visitors can walk along the Olympian Trail,
which leads past Brookes’ old house and the Corn Exchange in which the Olympian
Class was planned out.