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Think the modern Olympics started in Greece?

Nope, says Ian Belcher, it all began in Shropshire – and it’s still going strong…

It’s not every day the under-15 girls’ high jump, held on the school playing field of a dreamy country town, attracts the international media spotlight. But as Alex Cawthra accepts her prize near the first aid tent, I’m standing next to a Japanese photographer, a reporter from the Independent and journalist from Le Figaro.

And they’re one tiny battalion in a press invasion. The 125th Wenlock Olympian Games, embracing everything from dressage, bowls and clay pigeon shooting to athletics, swimming and junior ‘kwik cricket’ has been covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post and a leading Brazilian paper. Two rival Tokyo camera crews are keeping a wary distance, and Baldrick has arrived to shoot a documentary for Australian TV. ‘It’s uniquely British,’ Tony Robinson tells me. ‘Friendly yet serious amateur competition. Laughter. Homemade cakes. You wouldn’t find it anywhere else.’

What on earth is going on? Well, with London 2012 on the home straight, the world is suddenly interested in the five-day event. Don’t fret. Unless you’re addicted to Olympic history, you may well have missed the significance of the small Shropshire town’s annual smorgasbord of sport.

The Wenlock Olympian games – one of 2012’s strange sci-fi mascots is named after them – played a critical role in the establishment of today’s multibillion pound global athletic spectacular. Based in and around Much Wenlock – a cluster of timber-framed cottages and Georgian redbrick houses, nuzzling a quilt of lush countryside – they were the brainchild of local boy William Penny Brookes, a founding father of the modern Olympic movement.

Brookes was a mutton-chopped 5ft 2ins Victorian pocket-rocket. Just listing his achievements leaves me breathless. He was a doctor, surgeon and botanist, as well as a commissioner for roads and taxes, JP and school manager, who brought gaslights and trains to his home town, while revamping one of the earliest public lending libraries and sealing Much Wenlock’s rancid, disease-ridden open sewers.

They were all part of his relentless drive to improve the community’s physical and mental health. In 1841 he formed the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society, teaching art, music and botany to the working man and expanding in 1850 to include a new Olympian Class with annual competitions in athletics and arts – a revival of ancient Greek contests. Brookes was 150 years ahead of his time, perfectly in tune with our modern mantras
of ‘Sport for all’ and ‘Mind, body, spirit’.

Along with athletics and country sports, the Wenlock Olympian Games held one-off crowd- pleasers you won’t see at London 2012: blindfolded wheelbarrow racing, piglet-catching, ‘jingling’ – blindfolded competitors chasing a man with bells on his legs – and an ‘old lady’s’ race where a knickerless 45-year-old won a pound of tea. There was pageantry – victory sashes, processions and heralds in Tudor costume – and a new blue-riband event, Tilting at the Ring, where horse-riders speared tiny hanging rings at high speed. The crowds lapped it up. Within 20 years, up to 10,000 spectators were flocking to the Shropshire town.

But Brookes, educated in London, Italy and France, had a far wider vision. He introduced separate county games in 1860 and, five years later, helped to establish the National Olympian Association. At its first event at Crystal Palace in 1866, the 440-yard hurdle was won by 18-year-old WG Grace, released from fielding at the Oval after scoring a double century the day before.

Superdoc’s next mission was to transplant his games on to an international stage. He assiduously built bridges with Athens and, around his 80th birthday, formed an unlikely alliance with a young French aristocrat. Pierre de Coubertin was visiting Rugby to research physical education in schools. Brookes grabbed the chance to invite him to a specially organised Wenlock games and banquet in autumn 1890. Impressed by the pageantry and passionate amateurism, the Gallic baron put a rocket up the Greek posterior.

Jackpot. The first modern Olympics were held in Athens in March 1896. Sadly, it was too late for Brookes. He had died 17 weeks before. He knew his dream was about to be realised, but the poignant ending surely deserves a Hollywood screenplay. Given Brookes’ diminutive stature, we are thinking Danny de Vito rather than Colin Firth.

On arrival, Much Wenlock doesn’t appear to be a white-hot cauldron of sporting rivalry. The main venue, the William Brookes School, perhaps lacks the drama of Zaha Hadid and Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Park designs, but its cool, contemporary wood façade is fused with a striking leisure and arts complex. I join a small, appreciative crowd and am almost run over by a senior citizen in an electric chair as the announcer – retired headmaster Geoff Richards, 84, has been on the mic for the past quarter-century – declares ‘the prizes for swimming will be presented in the, er, er… they’ll be in the pool, I suppose.’

It’s all gloriously amateur. But I’m not fooled. I’ve been caught out before in these parts. In 1993 I ran a half-marathon in nearby Ironbridge. I arrived confidently with a fellow runner, Fat Gareth. ‘My God,’ he groaned, staring around the warm-up, ‘it’s a lard-free zone. They’re all whippets.’ He was so far behind the fast field, they were dismantling the finishing stand as he crossed the line. Today’s events have drawn similarly excellent athletes from clubs around the country. At the fencing, where several competitors sport England stripes, I meet the supremely modest Alexander

Lloyd, the British No.1 under-17, who’s hoping to make the 2016 Rio Olympics. ‘Wenlock is the true amateur spirit,’ he says. ‘People are trying their hardest for gold – even if realistically their chances are low.’

In the nearby pool, swimmer Tom Walker, 76, has broken world records with monotonous regularity since he was 50, and last year won two world championships in Sweden. Several talented teens are helping out, including 13-year-old Chrissie Jones, who trains two hours a day, seven days a week and recently came tenth in the nationals for the 200 metres breaststroke. You can forget cheese-rolling at Much Wenlock.

Whether the youngsters reap the success of previous local competitors such as Harold Langley, who later competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics – the games immortalised in Chariots of Fire – and Alison Williamson, archery bronze medallist at Athens 2004, the doctor would have revelled in their participation. His tireless campaign for physical education to be added to the school curriculum bore fruit in 1895 – another remarkable achievement in a life now immortalised in a town trail. Breaking off from the under-nines 50 metres, I join Catherine Beale, author of the entertaining, meticulously researched Out of Wenlock (DB Publishing £12.99) to walk in Brookes’ footsteps around streets as English as tea and scones. We start at the white-walled Raven Hotel, home to the 1890 banquet in de Coubertin’s honour. Its excellent scoff comes with a side serving of sepia photographs and historical documents related to the games.

Dissecting Barrow Street’s photogenic tumble of cottages – featured in the John Cleese movie Clockwise – we pass the haunts of legendary local athletes, including hurdler William Roberts, whose controversial duel with Jack White, the Gateshead Clipper, saw the visiting runner disqualified for using a hand to vault the fences. There’s the Victorian hairdresser whose assistant John Bryant won the first Wenlock long jump. There’s a half-timbered property just past the Balti House – formerly the Falcon Inn – whose ostler
was the David Beckham of his day, excelling at quoits and archery, where he registered victory with a triumphant bullseye.

Now we’re on the route of the original opening procession. We browse the hardware store that used to be Bodenham’s Drapers, makers of the yellow sash presented to the victorious ring-tilter by a town beauty – ‘Not a totty moment,’ stresses Catherine ‘but important pageantry’ – before arriving at the Corn Exchange.

The stout Victorian home of the Agricultural Reading Society still contains a library and the classical busts once used for art classes. The High Street’s history is punctuated by thriving modern businesses, particularly A Ryan & Sons family butchers, famed for Paddy’s pies and recently declared Britain’s best small trader.

Happily the tour has sauce for the pies. It’s a bit of a bodice-ripper – or perhaps Lycra-ripper. Not only was Raven landlord Thomas Everall jailed for assaulting his wife’s lover,
but Brookes himself was attacked outside Ashfield Hall following suspicions that he was sleeping with one of the assailant’s wives. More tragically his neighbour’s house in Sheinton Street witnessed the Olympian Society’s treasurer and secretary slitting his wife’s throat after a nervous breakdown.

Much Wenlock has gorgeous architecture. There’s the exquisite medieval guildhall, whose council chamber was revamped by Brookes using antique interiors from a nearby stately pile. It’s matched by Reynald’s Mansion, a balconied property of Shakespearean beauty, and the old railway station where Coubertin first alighted, now transformed into three ludicrously cute council houses.

The most poignant stop is the 12th-century Holy Trinity Church where Brookes liked to sit in the front row interrupting the pastor’s sermon. The family graves, surrounded
by neat blue railings, are now a place of pilgrimage. Olympic gold medallists have left personal tributes and, in 1994, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, came to pay homage to Brookes, labelling him ‘the founder of the modern Olympic Games’.

Back at the athletics, overlooked by the magnificent lime and Wellingtonia trees planted more than a century ago, the under-11 girls’ 200 metres rockets off through a shroud of drizzle. I visit the café – its 60p carrot cake has been a rampant bestseller – and meet 74-year-old volunteer John Reade who has fired the Wenlock Olympian starting pistol for more than 30 years. This really is Cameron’s Big Society.

I end up at the bowling, whose green clubhouse – Brookes recycled the old wooden railway station – is more GK Chesterton than Usain Bolt. Tanned septuagenarian competitor Arthur Renhard has just appeared on Japanese TV.

‘My partner Jean bent down in the rain and her hip went. She’s getting another one in two weeks. She’ll be back next year as the bionic woman.’ Bionics? I doubt they feature in the Wenlock Olympian Society Rules. But as long as its marvellous amateur games continue, accompanied every four years by their superstar younger brother, I doubt the good doctor would give a damn.

Do Not Disturb Magazine

One comment

  1. Personally, I still think the modern Olympics started in Greece…

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