What are the origins of the Olympic Games? PE & Sport Today explores Dr William Penny Brookes’ involvement in the first modern olympic games, the Wenlock Olympic Games

Contrary to popular myth, Baron Pierre De Coubertin did not conceive the idea of the modern Olympics in Athens, 1896. So instead let us acknowledge Dr William Penny Brookes, father of the modern Olympian movement, the Games of which first took place in 1850 in Much Wenlock, a town in Shropshire.

Dr Brookes’ inspiration
William Penny Brookes was born in Much Wenlock in 1809, the son of a doctor. Continuing in his father’s footsteps, he too studied medicine and, following the sudden death of his father in 1830, he returned to the town the following year to take over his father’s practice. With wide-ranging interests including art, music and science, Brookes became a prominent local figure and it was his further engagement in local affairs that sowed the seeds of the first Olympian Games. From becoming a magistrate in 1841, Brookes gained an insight into the result of misdirected energies and ignited a desire to develop the need for structured physical exercise and education for the working classes, later manifest in his calls to introduce physical education into British schools.

Let the Games begin!
The first Games, held in Much Wenlock in October 1850, were for the ‘promotion of moral, physical and intellectual improvement’ of participants and open to ‘every grade of man’. They were a mixture of athletics as well as traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. Early Games sometimes included novelty events and perhaps surprisingly were often sponsored by local businesses. Though often associated with later Olympic occasions, pageantry was an important element from the outset, with a band leading a procession of flag bearers, competitors and officials as they marched through the decorated streets of the town. From the beginning, some events were open to all-comers and as the Games continued to expand competitors came from as far away as London and Liverpool.

Taking the Games further
Buoyed by the success of the Wenlock games, Brookes sought to expand his vision, this time nationally. In 1865, with Hulley of Liverpool and Ravenstein of the German Gymnastic Club in London, Brookes established the National Olympian Association (NOA), a sport’s association for amateur athletes. Their first festival, held the following year at Crystal Palace, London, was a great success and attracted a crowd in excess of 10,000 spectators.

With a belief that such a festival was possible on a still grander scale and would be most appropriately located in Greece, Brookes wrote to the Greek government outlining his vision. In June 1881, the Greek newspaper Clio reported that “Dr Brookes, this enthusiastic ‘Philhellene’, is endeavouring to organise an International Olympian Festival, to be held in Athens”. However, in a time of political change, the Greek government politely declined, despite Brookes’ best efforts.

De Coubertin enters the picture
News of Brookes’ venture, however, did not fall on deaf ears and a young Baron Pierre de Coubertin, organiser of the International Congress on Physical Education, appealed for information about the Games through the English newspapers. Brookes responded and extended an invitation to attend. De Coubertin visited Much Wenlock on 22 October 1890 and experienced the Olympian Games at first hand.

Following enthusiastic discussions with the aged Brookes, De Coubertin returned to France where he promptly penned an article for the December 1890 issue of La Revue Athletique, where he stated that, ‘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’.

A tradition continued
Listed as a member of the 1894 Olympic congress, Brookes was unable to travel to Greece due to ill health and sadly failed to see his dream come to fruition, as he died only months before the first International Olympic Games opened in Athens in 1896.

Thanks to the efforts of Brookes and those that followed, the Wenlock Olympian Games are still held each year, attracting athletes from all across the UK. The next event, the 122nd Games, will take place from 11 – 14 July 2008. Events include (based on the 2007 programme) archery, athletics, bowls, badminton, clay pigeon shooting, cricket, fencing, five-a-side football, golf, a seven mile road race, tennis, triathlon and volleyball.

Further information can be found at Wenlock Olympian Society

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