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London 2012
From Mount Olympus to Much Wenlock
Modern Olympics owe their existence to town in rural England that was inspired by benefits of Ancient Greek sport event.
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2012 14:12
This scene is not a representation of the opening ceremony of the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850 [GALLO/GETTY]

Athens may be the birthplace of the ancient Olympics, but the modern-day version may never have seen the light of day were it not for a mediaeval town in rural England.

With the spotlight on London 2012, the story of how this remote community inspired the Games is now receiving global recognition.

Much Wenlock is a picturesque, 700-year-old English town in the county of Shropshire that boasts winding streets, traditional white-and-black timber beamed houses, limestone cottages and even an Abbey ruin.

The Olympic link dates back to William Penny Brookes, a doctor in the town 125 miles (200 km) northwest of London, who believed in the benefits of physical exercise for "every grade of man".

In 1850, before the game of lawn tennis was invented or athletics introduced at Oxford and Cambridge universities, Brookes set up the annual Wenlock Olympian Games featuring football, running and hopping.

This innovative multi-sports event, featuring men of all classes, expanded nationally with the first National Olympian Games held in London in 1866. Much Wenlock still holds its own Olympics every July.

Brookes made his mark on history in 1890 when French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, visited Much Wenlock to discuss the doctor's ethos of fair play in sport and the need to be healthy in body and mind.

Olympic revival

His influence on de Coubertin inspired the revival of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 with the London Olympic organisers, LOCOG, acknowledging Brookes' important role by naming the official 2012 Olympics mascot Wenlock.

"It is surprising really that few people in Britain were aware of this link. It really had become a forgotten story," said Tim King, Tourism Officer for Shropshire Council, as the 126th Wenlock Olympian Games got underway this week.

The Olympic torch is carried through Much Wenlock in May 2012 [GALLO/GETTY]

"This is a one-off year for Much Wenlock. It is time to promote this story and attract more tourists. Tourism is vital here because there are no large industries."

With four tea shops, a local butcher, a hardware store and a population of 2,600, Much Wenlock has retained the charm of a traditional English village with no supermarkets or major retailers allowed into its high street.

But like many small towns in rural England, it needs to increase tourism to bolster local businesses and stop people moving to larger urban centres to find work.

Tourism is vital to preserve economic activity in rural areas, accounting for about 10 per cent of business in 2009/2010 which is little changed in the past decade, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Chris Cannon, archivist at the Wenlock Olympian Society, said the links between Brookes and de Coubertin were well documented although the story was largely forgotten for years.

"Much Wenlock is a small place in the middle of nowhere and people outside this area just didn't take any notice of it," Cannon told the Reuters news agency.

Letters

He said the story really emerged again in 1990 when a visiting academic studying Olympic history went through a box of letters between Brookes and de Coubertin and saw the significance.

Brookes was aged 81 and de Coubertin was 27 when the two men met in Much Wenlock for five days.

Brookes had spent his life dedicated to the promotion of sport. As well as setting up the Wenlock Olympian Games, he campaigned tirelessly to get physical education put on the national schools' curriculum, succeeding just before his death.

He also corresponded with the authorities in Greece, urging them to revive the Olympics.

Meanwhile de Coubertin was looking for inspiration after his nation's humiliation in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.

He admired the way English schools used sports such as rugby in education to build character and strength, so he put an announcement in English newspapers asking if anyone could advise him about national sport in schools and Brookes wrote to him.

In 1890 de Coubertin came to Much Wenlock to meet Brookes and watched a Wenlock Olympian Games which included an opening procession and ceremony and medals with the Greek goddess Nike.

On his return to France, de Coubertin used his money and international political clout to expand on his idea of an international sports competition and revive the ancient Greek Olympics, a dream which became a reality in 1896.

Brookes died four months before the Athens Olympics but Cannon said de Coubertin initially gave him full credit as the inspiration behind the modern Olympics.

These mentions, however, died out as the Games grew and the story was largely forgotten even though some traces of the Wenlock Olympian Games continue in the Olympics.

"The use of this Olympic model for a modern games with its pageantry, parade of athletes and medal ceremonies comes from here," Beale told Reuters.

"It is nice to finally have Wenlock's role acknowledged as being so central and important to the Olympic Games."

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