The Wenlock Olympian Games That Inspired Modern Olympics

Jul 17, 2021 0 comments

The first modern Olympic Games was held in Athens in 1896, but it was the small British town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire where the Olympic flame was rekindled first.

In 1850, a local doctor named William Penny Brookes, inspired by the Ancient Olympic Games, founded the Olympian Class “for the promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes.” Brookes hoped to achieve that through an annual competition which would encourage outdoor recreation and the public display of “skill in athletic exercise and proficiency in intellectual and industrial attainments.” That same year, the first games were held.

Wenlock Olympian Games

Photo: Wenlock Olympian Society

The first Games were a mixture of athletics and traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. Events also included running, hurdles, football and cycling on penny farthings. Some of the early Games included fun events as the blindfolded wheelbarrow race and an 'Old Women's Race'.

When the games were first staged, many opposed the large number of scantily-dressed young men performing in front of women, complaining that the event would cause drunkenness, rioting, lewd behavior, and that men would leave their wives. None of the disturbances occurred and the first edition was a huge success.

The games went from strength to strength following years of work to build up subscriptions and attracted more competitors with new competitions. This in turn brought in more spectators through organized pageantry and better advertising. In 1859, when Brookes heard that Greek businessman Evangelis Zappas was organizing a similar event in Athens, he offered to sponsor the Long Foot Race at the Zappas Olympics and sent a prize money of £10. It was the largest prize on offer and was won by Petros Velissarios of Smyrna. Velissariou was made the first Honorary Member of the Wenlock Olympian Class.

Wenlock Olympian Games

Photo: Wenlock Olympian Society

Wenlock Olympian Games

Photo: Wenlock Olympian Society

The following year the railway came to Much Wenlock, and Brookes, being the Director of the Wenlock Railway Company, used this opportunity to create much fanfare for that year’s Wenlock Olympics. Brookes insisted that the working class men were allowed to travel free, and this led to even bigger attendance at the games.

The Wenlock Olympics were originally organized by the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS), but following a dispute with WARS in 1860, the Wenlock Olympian Class separated from WARS and changed its name to Wenlock Olympian Society. The next year, Brookes instigated the setting up of the annual Shropshire Olympian Games. The games were held in different towns each year and it is from the Shropshire Olympian Games that the modern Olympics are thought to have taken the idea of host cities to take responsibility for the financing of the games.

William Penny Brookes

William Penny Brookes

Brookes was also instrumental in setting up the National Olympian Association based in Liverpool. Their first Olympian Games was held in 1866 at The Crystal Palace, London, and was a surprising success and attracted a crowd of over ten thousand people. Brookes even tried to start an Olympic Games in Athens open to international competitors, but the Greek government did not show interest as they had more pressing political problems.

In 1889, Brookes invited Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and the founder of an International Congress on Physical Education, to Much Wenlock to watch the games. On his return to France, Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay and referred to his host's efforts to revive the Olympics. He wrote: “If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives there today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes”

Pierre de Coubertin

Pierre de Coubertin

Coubertin spent the next five years organizing an international meeting of athletes and sports enthusiasts, eventually leading up to the establishment of the International Olympic Committee. The first Olympic Games were held in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in the summer of 1896, just four months after Brookes’s death.

While Brookes' contribution to the revival of the Olympic Games was recognized in Britain at the time, Coubertin in his later writings tried to downplay Brookes’s influence, although he did mention the roles of Evangelis Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas.

The Wenlock Olympian Society maintains his original ideals, and continues to organize annual Olympian Games which are held each year at venues across Shropshire.

In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, one of the mascots was named Wenlock to honor Brookes and Much Wenlock.


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