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Eric Shackle Writes: England's Two Olympic Games

"England will host not one, but two Games of Olympic significance this year,'' reports Eric Shackle.

The official games will be held from July 27 to August 12 -- but the Wenlock Olympian Society will hold their annual Games from July 8 to 22.

Wenlock (population 2600) is a small town in Shropshire, not far from the Welsh border. It held its first Games in October 1850. They were a mixture of athletics and also traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket.

Those early Games sometimes included a ' fun' event; once a wheelbarrow race, another year an old women's race for a pound of tea.

Pageantry was an important element from the outset. A band led the procession of flag bearers, competitors and officials as they marched through the decorated streets of the town to the racecourse. In later years the Games were held at the Windmill Field, and more recently at the Gaskell Recreation Ground.

From the beginning some events were open to all-comers. In the much expanded 1851 Games, for example, according to a newspaper report, a man named Poyner of Albrighton won three events, Badger of Wolverhampton came second in the 'half-mile foot race', while Mainwaring of Birmingham won the 'leaping in distance' event.

Later, competitors came from as far away as London in the south and Liverpool in the north.

William Penny Brookes, who was born in Wenlock, was the founding father of the Wenlock Olympian Society's Games. In 1859 he sent £10 to Greece, to be presented to the winner of an event in the revived Olympian Games in Athens.

Those Games were funded by the wealthy Albania-born Evangelis Zappas. He was of Greek-ethnic origins, and spent most of his life in Romania. The Zappas Olympis were part of a 'National Industry' exhibition. The Greek Committee decided to award the Wenlock prize to the winner of the 'Long' or 'Sevenfold' race.

In 1865, with Hulley of Liverpool and Ravenstein of the German Gymnastic Club in London, Brookes established the National Olympian Association (NOA) based in Liverpool. The aim was to provide a sports association for amateur athletes.

Their first festival, held the following year at the Crystal Palace, London, was a great success and attracted more than 10,000 spectators.

The volunteer members of the Wenlock Olympian Society past and present have maintained and preserved Brookes’ ideals.

It was his dream to see the ancient Games revived, open to the world’s athletes. He inspired Baron Coubertin, a young French aristocrat, to set up the International Olympic Committee, but sadly Brookes died just four months before the first open Games, held in April, 1896.

He was born, lived and died in the little market town of Much Wenlock. He was a doctor, surgeon and magistrate for the borough for more than 40 years.

In 1850, he established the Wenlock Olympian Society and its Games. It was Brookes’ dream to see Olympics based on the Ancient Games revived, open to the world’s athletes but with competitors exercising chivalry and ‘fair play’.

For Queen Victoria's jubilee, in 1877, Brookes requested an Olympian prize from Greece for that special year. In response to this petition, Greece's King George sent a suitably inscribed silver cup which was presented at the National Olympian Games held in Shrewsbury. That brought Brookes into contact with the Greek Charge d'Affaire in London.

The Greek newspaper Clio, in June 1881, reported that "Dr Brookes, this enthusiastic philhellene is endeavouring to organise an International Olympian Festival, to be held in Athens ….".

Sadly the Greek nation was still in a time of change and despite both Gennadius's and Brookes's enthusiasm, the Greek government politely declined.

In 1889, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education, appealed for information through the English newspapers. Brookes responded.

The Baron was so impressed that at the old doctor's invitation, he visited Much Wenlock in October 1890. A meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Games was arranged in his honour.

At that time the two men discussed their similar ambitions and further, Brookes, then aged 81, shared with the young 27- year -old de Coubertin his dream of an Olympic revival, aninternational Games to be staged in Athens.

On his return to France de Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in Much Wenlock and referred to his host's efforts to revive the Olympics.
He wrote in his article for the December issue of La Revue Athletique-
" 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 W P Brookes".

Their respect was mutual. Coubertin referred to the doctor as " my oldest friend." Although Brookes was listed as an honoury member of the 1894 Congress, he was unable to attend because of ill health.

Regrettably he died just four months before the realisation of his life long ambition; to launch the first International Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, and so did not see his dream come to fruition.

Brookes has not , until recent years, been given his due recognition of his contribution to the re-birth of the modern Olympic Games.

The Zappas's Games, as referred to earlier, open to subjects of the Greek nation, continued to function intermittently with varying degrees of success right up until the revived International Olympic Games in 1896.

Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS) maintains the original ideals of William Penny Brookes. The Olympian Society Committee comprises approximately 20 members.

WOS’s Chairman, Simon Macvicar said, “The society is delighted that Brookes’ place in Olympic history has been acknowledged. Not only has the Olympic mascot been named Wenlock, but the Olympic flame will be passing through the towns of the old Wenlock Borough. The old doctor would have been astonished and delighted”.

WOS's Vice President, Jonathan Edwards, triple jump Olympic Gold medallist and World Record Holder is also part of the London 2012 organising team.

The announcement of the Torch Run’s route has caused nationwide celebrations, no more so than in Much Wenlock. The flame will arrive there on May 30 and the Wenlock Olympian Games will open with the marathon and the equestrian events, on July 8.

Five days after the Olympian Games end, the 2012 Olympics will begin.

Video, London Olympic Games mascots Wenlock and Mandeville:

Dr Penny Brookes: http://www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk/history/wpb/index.shtml


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