Cotswold Olimpick Games

Nov 8, 2022 0 comments

The town of Chipping Campden, in the Cotswold district of Gloucestershire, England, has been holding their own “Olympic” games since the 17th century. Unlike regular Olympics, the Cotswold Olimpick Games includes a bunch of unconventional sporting events such as sledgehammer throwing, wheelbarrow racing, morris dancing, and the annual favorite—shin-kicking.

The Cotswold Olimpick Games were invented by a lawyer named Robert Dover, who believed that games bring the rich and the poor together, increasing social harmony while also providing physical exercise which was necessary for the defense of the kingdom. King James approved his vision and the first games were held in 1612.

The Cotswold Olimpicks

The games were held on the Thursday and Friday of Whit-Week, or the week of Whitsun, which normally fell between mid-May and mid-June. They took place in a natural amphitheatre, now known as Dover's Hill, but back then it was called Kingcombe Plain. A temporary wooden building was erected each year, called Dover Castle, from which gunfire salutes were sounded during the competitions. Races were run, men and women danced, men wrestled, threw the sledge and played at backswords. Chess and card games were also played in booths and tents. There was music, eating and drinking. People from all strata of society came to partake in the activities or just to watch. Some came from villages located 60 miles away. Robert Dover himself presided over the games on horseback, dressed ceremonially in a coat, hat, feather and ruff, donated by King James.

The games were but much frowned upon by the Puritans who believed they were of pagan origin and promoted immorality and drunkenness. In fact, they disliked any celebration on a church holiday. Some Puritans even declared all sports inherently immoral regardless of when practiced. The religious debate over sports and other political issues eventually led to the English Civil War, and the games were suspended in 1643.

An old woodcut of the Cotswold Games, published in 1636.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the games were reinstated, and once again they became very popular. By then, Dover had already expired and without his influence, the games slowly degenerated into “just another drunken country festival,” as noted by the poet William Somervile in 1740. Somervile described the games as a general riot in which “chairs, and forms, and battered bowls are hurled” and “like bombs the bottles fly.” The poet and writer Richard Graves also described the games in his novel The Spiritual Quixote as a “heathenish assembly”. Graves dramatised an event for the women's race, where he wrote: “six young women began to exhibit themselves before the whole assembly, in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency.”

The parish rector Reverend Geoffrey Drinkwater Bourne claimed that up to 30,000 people were attending the games by the 1840s, and that the hillside was full of inebriated and unruly people. In the 1878 edition of Annalia Dubrensia; or, Celebration of captain Robert Dover's Cotswold games, E.R. Vyvyan notes regretfully:

From 1846 onwards, the games, instead of being as they originally were intended to be decorously conducted, became the trysting place of all the lowest scum of the population which lived in the districts lying between Birmingham and Oxford. These people came to Dover’s Hill and remained there the whole of Whitsun week, creating all sorts of disturbances, and in short demoralizing the whole neighbourhood.

The organizers also started to face administrative difficulties as some of the land that was used for the games were purchased in the 1820s and were not freely available and had to be rented. Another difficulty loomed over the organizers—much of England's common land was being partitioned up and fenced off. Without the existence of a suitably large area of common land, the games could not be held. The inevitable happened in 1850 when an Enclosure Act granted the owners of Dover’s Hill to enclose the land, signaling the end of the Olimpick Games. The last games were held in 1852.

In 1951, after a gap of nearly a century, the games were revived as part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain. They proved to be so popular that it was decided to make them an annual event, but an outbreak of foot and mouth disease closed all available land and the momentum was once again lost. It wasn’t until 1965 that the games became a regular event with the foundation of the Robert Dover's Games Society. Since then the games have been held every year, with a few exception, and attracts thousands of visitors.

Competitors engaging in shin kicking

Participants stuffing their trouser legs with straw in preparation for shin kicking.

One of the most notable events of the tournament—shin kicking—was introduced after the games were revived following the Civil War. Shin kicking involves competitors gripping their opponent’s shoulders and attempting to kick each other on the shin in order to force their opponent to the ground. Legend has it that some shin-kickers wore steel-toe boots during the competitions and tried to build pain tolerance by hitting their shins with hammers. In modern competitions, the combatants are required to wear soft shoes and they are allowed to stuff their trouser legs with straw for padding.

The shin kicking championship was called off in 2017 due to concerns of severe injury.

Richard Caborn, a former sports minister, said about the event: “Can it even be defined as a sport? I think it's barbaric.”

He continued: “Is there a skill set? I think the best thing is for people not to do it. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't fall under any definition of sport. It's not something that's going to catch on, put it that way. It definitely won't get in the Olympics. I think it's crazy.”

Despite the push back from the local council, the shin kicking was reinstated in 2022.


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