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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The idea of replicating the ancient Olympics had taken on a certain romantic appeal, though, and other English towns copied the Cotswold Olympicks on a smaller scale. Elsewhere, too, the idea was in the air. The Jeux Olympiques Scandinaves were held in Sweden in 1834 and ’36; and the so-called Zappas Olympics in 1859 and ’70 were popular successes in Greece. However, when a butcher and laborer won events in 1870, the Athenian upper classes took umbrage, banned hoi polloi, and subsequent Zappas Olympics were but sporting cotillions for the elite. For the first time, amateurism had reared its snotty head.

Ah, but in Much Wenlock, the Olympic spirit thrived, year after year—as it does to this day. Penny Brookes had first scheduled the games on October 22, 1850, in an effort “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants” of Wenlock. However, notwithstanding this high-minded purpose, and unlike the sanctimonious claptrap that suffocates the Games today, Penny Brookes also knew how to put a smile on the Olympic face. His annual Much Wenlock games had the breezy ambience of a medieval county fair. The parade to the “Olympian Fields” began, appropriately, at the two taverns in town, accompanied by heralds and bands, with children singing, gaily tossing flower petals. The winners were crowned with laurel wreaths, laid on by the begowned fairest of Much Wenlock’s fair maids. Besides the classic Greek fare, the competitions themselves tended to the eclectic. One year there was a blindfolded wheelbarrow race, another offered “an old woman’s race for a pound of tea” and on yet another occasion there was a pig chase, with the intrepid swine squealing past the town’s limestone cottages until cornered “in the cellar of Mr. Blakeway’s house.”

If all this sounds more like a children’s birthday party, Penny Brookes’ games could be serious business. Competitors traveled all the way from London, and, flattered that Brookes had so honored his noble heritage, the king of Greece, in faraway Athens, donated a silver urn that was awarded each year to the pentathlon winner. The renown of Shropshire’s sporting competition under the cusp of the Wenlock Edge grew.

It is of particular historical interest that even from the inaugural Much Wenlock games, cricket and football were included. The Greeks had never tolerated any ball games in the Olympics, and likewise the Romans dismissed such activity as child’s play. Although English monarchs themselves played court tennis, several kings issued decrees banning ball games. The fear was that the yeomen who amused themselves so, monkeying around with balls, would not be dutifully practicing their archery in preparation for fighting for the Crown. Even as the gentry migrated to the New World, it continued to disparage ball games in comparison with the savage butchery of the hunt. Thomas Jefferson was moved to say: “Games played with the ball . . . are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” Talk about over-the-top; you would’ve thought Alexander Hamilton was playing shortstop for the Yankees.

But as the 19th century moved along, ball games throughout the English-speaking world suddenly took on acceptance. Cricket, rugby, field hockey and football in Britain; baseball and American football in the United States; lacrosse and ice hockey in Canada; Australian rules football down under—all were codified within a relatively short period. Sorry, the Duke of Wellington never did say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields at Eton, but it was true, especially in upper-crust schools like Eton and Rugby, as at Oxford and Cambridge, that team games began to gain institutional approval. As early as 1871 England met Scotland in a soccer match in Edinburgh.

De Coubertin was beguiled by this English devotion to sport. Himself a little fellow (see Brown, Tom), invariably put out in a frock coat, the baron was, however, utterly naked of either charm or humor. Rather, he was distinguished by a flowing mustache that was a thing of majesty and affectation. Yet those who personally encountered him were most entranced by his dark piercing eyes that lasered out beneath heavy eyebrows. Like his eyes, the baron was concentrated of mind. He was unswerving, and his resolution showed. When he met Theodore Roosevelt, the bully president felt obliged to declare that he had finally actually encountered a Frenchman who was not a “mollycoddle.”

Richard D. Mandell, the premier Olympic historian, has written that de Coubertin sought out fellows of his own wealthy, classically trained bourgeois ilk—“most were congenial, well-meaning second-rank intellectuals, academicians and bureaucrats.” Still, few of them bought into de Coubertin’s Olympic dream. For that matter, some found it absolutely screwball. Notwithstanding, the baron was indefatigable; in today’s world he would have been a lobbyist. He was forever establishing shadow committees with impressive letterheads and setting up meetings or higher falutin gatherings he billed as “congresses.” Apparently, he always traveled with a knife and fork, constantly holding forth over dinners, entertaining, pitching...well, preaching. “For me,” he declared, “sport is a religion with church, dogma, ritual.” Ultimately, his obsession with Olympism would cost him his fortune and the love of his embittered wife, and at the end, in 1937, his heart would, appropriately, be buried in the beloved past, in Olympia.

But for his present he inhabited the soul of England. He journeyed across La Manche, and with his connections and facility for name-dropping, he made all the right rounds. Even better, there was the glorious pilgrimage to Rugby, to bond with the fictional Tom Brown, to grow even more enamored of the English athletic model. Ironically, too, that was really something of a Potemkin arena, because unlike the German masses at their boring exercises, it was only the British upper classes who could afford the time for fun and games. After all, the “lower orders” could hardly be trusted to act upon the field of play in a proper sportsmanlike manner. The original British definition of amateur did not simply mean someone who played at sport without remuneration; rather, it was much broader: An amateur could only be someone who did not labor with his hands. When the Crown began mustering its youth to serve in the Boer War, it discovered that large numbers of Englishmen were in poor physical condition. De Coubertin, though, ignored the actual for the ideal.

In 1890, he journeyed to Much Wenlock, dining there with Penny Brookes. For perhaps the first time, the baron was not required to proselytize; good grief, he was a downright Johnny-come-lately. Why, it had been a decade since Penny Brookes had first proposed that not only should the Olympics be reinstituted, but they should be held in Athens. Talk about preaching to the choir. One can plainly see the young Frenchman beaming, twirling that fantastic mustache, as the old doctor told him how “the moral influence of physical culture” could actually improve the whole damn world.

Then de Coubertin hied to the Olympian Fields and saw the Games for real. Yes, it was only Much Wenlock, one little town in the Midlands, and the Olympians were mostly just Shropshire lads, but now it wasn’t a dream. Right before his eyes, the baron could see athletes running and jumping, with laurel wreaths placed upon the victors’ brows and brotherhood upon the horizon of sport.


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