The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start

As London gets set to host the XXXth Olympiad, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England

As the Games return to London, it's worth remembering that they may not exist at all were it not for the perseverance of the Brits. (John Ritter)
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What is known as Wenlock Edge, a great palisade, almost 1,000 feet high, running for 15 miles through the county of Shropshire, overlooks, near its eastern end, the tidy town of Much Wenlock. (Much Wenlock being so named, you see, to distinguish it from its even wee-er neighbor, Little Wenlock.) However, to this quaint backwater village near Wales came, in 1994, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, the grandiose president of the International Olympic Committee.

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Samaranch, an old spear carrier for Franco, was a vainglorious corporate politician, either obsequious or imperious, depending on the company, who was never much given to generosity. Yet he found his way to Much Wenlock, where he trooped out to the cemetery at Holy Trinity Church and placed a wreath on a grave there. Samaranch then declared that the man who lay at his feet beneath the Shropshire sod “really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games.”

That fellow was affectionately known as Penny Brookes; more formally, he was Dr. William Penny Brookes, the most renowned citizen of Much Wenlock—at least since the eighth century, when the prioress of the abbey there, St.  Milburga, regularly worked miracles (notably with birds she could order about), while also displaying a singular ability to levitate herself. If not quite so spectacular as the enchanted prioress, Penny Brookes was certainly a man of consequence—fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, town magistrate and founder of the National Olympian Association in 1865—which, significantly, he created years before the International Olympic Committee was formed. Still, notwithstanding Samaranch’s homage, Brookes and his little town are seldom cited in Olympic liturgy.

Olympic myth runs rife, too, generously embroidered with Pollyanna. Most particularly, from its inception, modern Olympic advocates have trumpeted that their sweaty contests are much more uplifting—a noble “movement” of brotherhood that will somehow influence us grubby mortals to stop our common carping and warring. Alas, poetry and peace always then fly off with the doves.

Also gospel is it that a Frenchman, venerating Greek antiquity, cowered by German physicality, was the initiating force behind the re-creation of the Games. But that’s only true so far as it goes. The fact is that the modern Olympics owe their birth and their model and, ultimately, their success foremost to England. For that matter, as we shall see, the first London Games, those of 1908, which were fashioned out of whole cloth by a towering Edwardian named Willie Grenfell—or Lord Desborough, as he had become—essentially saved the Olympics as an institution. It’s really quite appropriate that, in a few weeks hence, London will become the first city since Olympia to host the Games three times.  

Across the channel, Pierre Frédy was born in Paris in 1863 into the French aristocracy. He grew up as an unapologetic chauvinist, but withal, even as France declined as a world presence, nothing ate at young Pierre more than the fact that Germany had whipped France in the Franco-Prussian War when he had been but an impressionable tot of 7. Pierre became convinced that a considerable reason for France’s shellacking was that the German soldiers had been in much better shape.

This was certainly true, too, as young Germans were assembled to participate in turnen, which were tedious, rote physical exercises that, like eating your spinach, were good for you. But Pierre Frédy’s antipathy for anything Teutonic inhibited him from simply encouraging French leaders to have their youth ape their victors’ physical education. Rather, by chance, he happened to read the British novel Tom Brown’s School Days, and thereupon Pierre, who would ascend to the title of the Baron de Coubertin, had what could only be described as a spiritual experience.

Tom Brown’s was about a smallish boy who goes off to boarding school at Rugby, where he participates in the school’s athletics, which helps him to thrash the big bully, Flashman. Moreover, the climax of the novel is a game—a cricket match. The young baron was hooked. Not only did he want to improve the physical condition of his own countrymen by emphasizing the British way of sport, but he began to conjure up the greater dream of reinstituting the ancient Greek Olympics, thereby to improve the whole world.

The original Olympics had been banned in A.D. 393 by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, but despite the prohibition, Europeans of the Dark and Middle ages kept playing their games. Frivolity by the lower classes is, however, not the stuff of history, saved. Rather, we mostly only have glamorous tapestried depictions of the nobility occupied at their expensive blood sports.

We do know, though, that by the 11th century in Scotland, various tournaments of strength were held. These were the ancient forerunners of what became the Highland Games, but it was not until 1612, farther south in England, that the embryonic modern Olympics first made their appearance. This was an athletic festival that was held on the estate of one Capt. Robert Dover, and it included the likes of fencing and “leaping” and wrestling, “while the young women were dancing to the tune of a shepard’s [sic] pipe.” It was even known, in fact, as the Cotswold Olympick Games. Captain Dover was a Roman Catholic, and he devilishly scheduled his festival as a joyous in-your-face exhibition to counter the dour Puritanism of the time. Unfortunately, with his death in 1641 the annual athletic celebration petered out.  


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