The Olympics that spawned the Olympics concluded recently in England with a joyous medal ceremony and rapturous celebration.
What, you didn't know?
The 126th Wenlock Olympian Games took place July 8 through July 22 in the historical and usually tranquil town of Much Wenlock northwest of London. Events ranged from the traditional (marathon, tennis, fencing) to the peculiar (aircraft gliding, senior citizens' swimming, net ball for 11-year-olds). Not as peculiar as events in the original games held on the same turf in 1850 (blindfolded wheelbarrow race, cycling on penny farthings and the not-to-be-missed "old woman's race for a pound of tea"), but peculiar just the same. The 100-mile walk, added just this year, was especially popular.
You might say it sounds more like a company picnic than an Olympics, and you'd be right, but appreciation for the Wenlock Games grows as its history is studied. A man as responsible for resurrecting the ancient Greek Olympics as any other, Dr. William Penny Brookes, launched the Wenlock Games on Oct. 22, 1850, as a way to "promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants."
Or, more practically, to get Much Wenlock's weavers, tailors and shoemakers out of the taverns, off their duffs and into the fresh air.
Brookes, also the town magistrate and local surgeon, founded the National Olympian Association 15 years later, and was an inspiration to the man commonly credited as the driving force behind the modern Olympics – a Frenchman known as Baron de Coubertin.
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For years, De Coubertin had envisioned just such a spectacle – albeit on a grander, international scale – and to witness an Olympics unfold in the English countryside encouraged him to redouble his efforts. By 1895 he had persuaded the Greeks to resurrect their ancient games and hold the first modern Olympics a year later.
In 1900 the Games took place in Paris, and speaking of the peculiar, competition included how fast firemen could extinguish a blaze. Four years later the Games moved to St. Louis, and as Frank Deford wrote in the July/August issue of The Smithsonian, "mud fighting and climbing a greased pole were highlighted Olympic events."
The Wenlock Games were highbrow by comparison.
With the entire movement wobbly and international interest waning, De Coubertin held the 1908 games in London. And they flourished. Penny Brookes had died years earlier, and the role of cultured, devoted Olympics advocate fell to Lord Desborough, an adventurer and member of Parliament. The Olympic stadium was built, and by July more than 2,000 athletes from 22 countries descended upon London.
The modern Olympics had arrived, would survive and this week will begin their third tour of London (the first post-WWII Games, in 1948, also were held there). The movement owes a debt of gratitude to England, perhaps rightly called the birthplace of the modern Games.
And that debt extends beyond London to Much Wenlock, beyond Lord Desborough to Penny Brookes, and a homespun Olympics that continues to this day. Admission to every event of the 126th Wenlock Olympian was free, the pubs were overflowing and the Friends of Much Wenlock Museum showcased the town's historical significance.
Far too often over the next three weeks you'll likely see an official mascot of the 2012 London Summer Olympics that resembles an oil blob turned Teletubby. Its name is Wenlock. Now you'll know why.
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