This Small UK Village Was an Inspiration for Modern Olympic Games

This Small UK Village Was an Inspiration for Modern Olympic Games
The town in Shropshire in United Kingdom that influenced modern Olympics, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The Wenlock Olympian Games held annually at Much Wenlock in United Kingdom was an inspiration for the modern Olympic Games

OT Staff
July 20 , 2021
06 Min Read

Why would members of the organizing committee of the Tokyo Olympics visit a small town tucked inside Shropshire in the United Kingdom in 2014?

The answer can be found in a statement issued by Professor Sanada after the visit where he said, “The Olympic movement began with the ancient Olympic Games and was revived by Coubertin after his visit to the Wenlock Olympian Games. The vision of Tokyo 2020 involves sport, education and culture, and we in Japan recognise the importance of the legacy of Dr Brookes and the Wenlock Olympian Society.”

The Japanese organizing committee had come down to Much Wenlock to observe the town’s annual sporting event, which is said to have been an inspiration for the modern Olympics.

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Way back in 1850, Dr. William Penny Brookes, an English surgeon, magistrate, botanist, and educationalist, was keen to promote physical education and personal improvement. So he founded the Wenlock Olympian Class (renamed as Wenlock Olympian Society later) which organised a sporting event in October the same year. According to Dr Brookes, the games were open to all ‘able-bodied men’. Putting fears of riotous behaviour to rest, the successive annual games became very popular. Participants came from across England.

The games included traditional sporting events such as football, cricket and athletics; while fun events such as Old Women’s Race or a Blindfolded Wheelbarrow Race would be held to entertain the crowd.

The games would begin after the officials and the competitors along with the flag bearers would march down the streets of the town with a band for company and arrive at the venue.

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According to the Historic UK website, in 1861, the Shropshire Olympian Games were founded and it was held in different towns each year. It was from here that the idea of the Olympic Games being hosted by different cities (and countries) was taken.

In 1890, Dr Brookes invited Baron Pierre de Coubertin (Charles Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin) to the Wenlock Olympian Games. French educator and historian Pierre de Coubertin also believed in the importance of physical education and the role of sport in schooling.

The Wenlock Olympian Society writes in its website – At this time the two men discussed their similar ambitions and further, Penny Brookes, then aged eighty one, shared with the young twenty seven year old Coubertin his dream of an Olympic revival, an international 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. The website also mentions that de Coubertin 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’.

Although much has been written about Pierre de Coubertin’s efforts resulting in the institution of the modern Olympic Games, the place from where he drew his inspiration to devise the modern form of the game almost got lost in oblivion.

In 2019, researcher Megan Jefferies of the International Academy for Sports Studies, University of Tsukuba, Tokyo presented a report titled, ‘The Origins, Foundations and Impact of the Wenlock Olympian Games.’ Among other things Jefferies wrote, “The story of Brookes and the Wenlock Olympian Games are a ‘hidden history’ and one that cannot be denied as a contributing factor and major influence on the modern Olympic Games today.”

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With international travel easing up, why not add this sporting town to your UK travel bucket list? The sporting event (held in July) is not the only thing that Much Wenlock has to offer. The town, which grew up around an Abbey founded in the late seventh century, still preserves relics of its mediaeval past. The nearby Wenlock Edge is said to be home to many rare orchids.

Much Wenlock is 40 minutes by road from Birmingham. You can find more details here

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