In search of the original British Olympics

There is one place to see some old-fashioned Olympian action this summer – and it is not London.

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 crossbar.

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.

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