Posts tagged: Much Wenlock

Will London 2012 give Britain’s sporting heritage its Moment to Shine?

By , 21st December 2011 13:27

The ‘towns on route’ have been announced and 6800 torch bearers have been unveiled. The complex planning process for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Torch Relays is entering its final stages. Over the next couple of months, the planning team must agree the street-level routes with local authorities across the country. But will the organisers miss the chance to create a legacy that would benefit the nations tourism industry beyond 2012?

The curtain-raiser to the Olympics since the infamous Berlin Games of 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay was transformed into a major sponsorship property by the Los Angeles Organising Committee in 1984. LA’s controversial ‘Youth Legacy Kilometer’ initiative also pioneered the idea of torch-bearers being nominated by the public: nominations were invited from individuals or companies who made a $3,000 donation to a special youth sport fund. Since LA, the fund-raising element has been dropped but the operational model, with incremental refinements, has been passed on in relay from one Games to the next.

LOCOG first outlined its vision for the Relay to “connect people to the Olympic Games, its heroes and its spirit,” in May 2010. “The Olympic Torch Relay will bring the 2012 Games to people’s doorsteps and showcase the best of the UK from dynamic urban areas to places of outstanding natural beauty and sporting and cultural landmarks.” To their credit, the LOCOG planning team appears to have bettered its initial target of the Relay route passing “within a one hour journey time” of 95% of the British population.

LOCOG’s initial Relay announcement bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the equivalent announcements from Vancouver, Beijing, Turin, Athens, Salt Lake and Sydney and even the Commonwealth Games Baton Relays of Delhi, Melbourne and Manchester. Strict observance of the established operational model appears to be stifling originality to the extent that sporting relays have become formulaic.

In their efforts to capture the public imagination and differentiate one Relay from the next, recent organisers have resorted to uplifting taglines. The invitation to “Light the Passion, Share the Dream“, was possibly misconstrued by the demonstrators that were attracted to various international legs of Beijing’s relay. London positions the Relay as “A moment to shine”.

Sadly, LOCOG appears to be in danger missing a trick. Britain’s unique sporting heritage gives LOCOG the opportunity to give the 2012 Relay a very distinctive feel and re-connect it, and the watching public, with the origins of many modern sports.

History is important to the International Olympic Committee. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne is currently the only permanent publicly accessible manifestation of the Olympic Movement. It is in the midst of a £30 million refurbishment.

DeCoubertin, who was inspired to re-establish the Olympics by William Penny Brookes, an octogenarian GP from Much Wenlock in Shropshire, once said that “holding an Olympic Games means evoking history”.

It is the century of iconic sporting moments and the spirits of athletes like Spiridon Louis, Dorando Pietri, Harold Abrahams, Jessie Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Ogla Korbut, Mark Spitz, Kathy Freeman, Steve Redgrave that underpin and sustain the Olympic brand. It’s the heritage that keep the IOC’s corporate sponsors and the world’s media coming back for more, decade after decade.

Without this heritage, a latter-day de Coubertin would find it impossible to persuade a single country, let alone a single city, to invest the billions required to host simultaneous world championships for so many different sports.

When inviting the world’s athletes to come to London during the Year-to-Go celebrations in Trafalgar Square on 27 July, IOC President Jacques Rogge talked of the Games “coming to the nation that invented modern sport and the concept of fair play.”

The IOC website acknowledges how Britain created, codified or popularised 15 out of the 25 current summer Olympic sports. Thanks to Scotland’s role as the home of both golf and rugby sevens, the tally will rise to 17 at Rio 2016. It’s an unfortunate oversight that the Relay route bypasses the birthplace of sevens at Melrose.

In recent years, history has been out of fashion within Britain’s educational establishment. In spite of this, the subject has remained popular with the public and continues to attract respectable audiences on television, even in our multi-channel age. Television historians have been elevated into the ranks of celebrity. Given the chance, history can still engage and excite school children – especially when there are local and sporting dimensions.

The final presentations to the 2005 Olympic Congress that secured the Games for London were littered with references to Britain’s sporting and Olympic pedigrees. However, LOCOG’s enthusiasm for history appears to have waned.

Yes, LOCOG did name their official mascots after the aforementioned Much Wenlock and the Buckinghamshire birthplace of Paralympic sport at Stoke Mandeville. But, beyond including these two towns and a handful of other sporting venues in the Relay, references to sporting heritage have largely disappeared from more recent Relay announcements. The only reference to “heritage” in the towns-on-route announcement relates to one of the presenting partners.

While retaining the ambition to make the 2012 Games themselves “historic”, LOCOG has placed modernity at the heart of its brand values. Unfortunately, to its international audiences, “modern London” has taken on new meaning since the summer riots of 2011.

Places all over the country have significant associations with the development of sport. Incorporating just a selection of these places into the detailed street-level route could provide a narrative thread running through the 2012 Torch Relay that would demonstrate to the nation and the wider world how deeply sport is embedded into the DNA and landscape of these islands.

This needn’t be chauvinistic. The Relay provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the places all over the country and the diverse, if sometimes flawed, characters that helped shape world sport. A deeper understanding of our own sporting heritage would help prevent future embarrassments like the FA’s failed World Cup bid.

Examples are many, varied and often surprising. The magnificently named Major Walter Clopton Wingfield reputedly demonstrated lawn tennis for the first time at Nantclwyd Hall near Wrexham. John Graham Chambers, who drew up boxing’s Queensbury Rules, and was the driving force behind the first national championships in modern athletics, was born in Llanelli. Matthew Webb, the man who arguably did more to popularise swimming than any other person by conquering the English Channel unaided, was born in Dawley, just a few miles from Much Wenlock. He learned to swim in the River Severn in the shadow of the famous Ironbridge.

Charles Alcock who conceived the FA Cup and international football and also hosted the original Ashes cricket test match in his capacity as secretary of Surrey CCC, was born in Sunderland.

The story of Harry Clasper challenges the stereotypical perception of rowing as the preserve of public schools, Oxbridge and the Thames. At different times a miner, ships carpenter, wherryman and publican, Clasper became a folk hero on the Tyne racing against professional watermen from the capital. He also revolutionised racing boat design, introducing keel-less hulls and outriggers – the forerunners of the boats that will race at Eton next year. More than 100,000 Geordies are reported to have turned-out for his funeral in 1870.

The Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay was instrumental in transforming scepticism among Australians outside the host city into widespread enthusiasm nationwide. In Britain, many who live outside the M25 tire of the continual, often subliminal, assertions of the cultural and economic superiority of London. Actively celebrating the sporting contributions of the communities along its route could help protect the Relay and the Games from such cynicism.

It’s also a sad reality that Torch Relays rarely generate much media coverage outside the host nation. The exceptions are as they enter the host city towards the end of their journeys or when they attract protesters.

As the 2012 Relay unfolds, a hundred or more overseas teams will be arriving in the UK for pre-Games training camps. Involving some of these visiting athletes as torch bearers at landmarks associated with their own sports would give the international media the stories that would justify covering the event. When even the Economist is questioning the tourism benefits of the Games, extending the world’s gaze beyond London could help transform the nation’s sporting heritage into a lasting sports tourism legacy that benefits the whole country.

In her 2011 RTS Huw Weldon Lecture, Bettany Hughes said, “It is the purpose of history to allow us to look confidently into the future.” Her observation that “History is essential to nourish the next generation,” echoed the aspirations that Seb Coe had for sport when he addressed the IOC in Singapore in 2005. Reconnecting the British people with their own local sporting heritage could give a boost to another struggling 2012 legacy programme by inspiring more people to take up sport themselves.

LOCOG’s own campaign to encourage the public to nominate unsung heroes as torch bearers was branded “Moment to Shine”. London 2012 still has the opportunity to give Britain’s unique and fascinating sporting heritage its own moment to shine.

Much Wenlock, the Shropshire GP and the modern Olympics

By , 20th July 2010 15:37
Birthplace of William Penny Brookes

7 Wilmore St, Much Wenlock

William Penny Brookes was born, lived, worked and eventually died at 7 Wilmore Street in the tranquil Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock.  It is surprising how a man who spent so much of his life in such a small, if beautiful, patch of rural England played such a major part in the creation of the modern Olympic Movement.

Born on 13 August 1809, Brookes followed his father into the medical profession training in London, Padua and Paris. On his father’s death in 1831, he returned to Much Wenlock to take over the practice and become a leading figure in the local community.

In 1841, Brookes established the town’s Agricultural Reading Society as an early lending library. This gave birth to a number of ‘classes’ promoting the arts and sciences.  Convinced of the importance of physical exercise Brookes set up the Wenlock Olympian Class in 1850 under the umbrella of the Reading Society with the objective of holding an annual games to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially the working classes.”

Including a mix of classic athletic events and traditional country sports, the first games were held in October 1850.  Open to all-comers, the second Games in 1851 were already attracting competitors from Wolverhampton and Birmingham.

When Evangelis Zappas staged the Athens Olympian Games – restricted to Greek nationals – for the first time in 1859, a £10 donation from Brookes on behalf of the Wenlock Olympian Committee resulted in the Wenlcok Prize being awarded for the ‘Sevenfold’ race.

By 1860, the Olympian Class flew its nest in the Agricultural Reading Society to become the Wenlock Olympian Society that exists to this day.  It was also in this year that Brookes launched a new initiative: the Shropshire Olympian Games. Conceived as a biannual event, the staging of the Shropshire Games would be taken on by a different town within the county every two years – a model later adopted by the Olympics.

In 1865, Brookes extended his horizons further when, in collaboration with John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of the German Gymnasium in London, he was instrumental in establishing the National Olympic Association.  This “union for different Olympian, Athletic, Gymnastic, Boating, Swimming, Cricket and other similar societies” staged its first festival at Crystal Palace over three days in 1866.  (The fourth National Olympian Games were held in Much Wenlock in 1874.)

The success of the event, which attracted 10,000 spectators, promoted the formation of the Amateur Athletic Club by a group of ex-public school athletes determined to preserve sport for ‘amateurs and gentlemen’.  Despite the efforts of the AAC, which later became the Amateur Athletic Association, athletics remained open to what Brookes described as ‘every grade of man’.

A sustained campaign to see physical education included in the school curriculum led to the first contact, in 1889,  between Brookes and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Congress on Physical Education.  At Brookes’ invitation de Coubertin arrived by train to attend the Much Wenlock Games on Linden Field on 22 October 1890.  That evening, he was guest of honour at a dinner hosted by the Wenlock Olympian Society at the Raven Hotel in Barrow Street.  It was during this visit that Brookes shared his dream of reviving an international Olympic Games in Athens – an idea that de Coubertin acknowledged in an article in La Review Athletique on his return to France.

Unfortunately, Brookes died at home in Wilmore Street on 10 December 1885 just four months before his dream was realised with the staging of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens.  In an obituary for Brookes, de Coubertin wrote:

“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 William Penny Brooks.”

Brookes is buried just across the road from his home in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church.   On visiting the grave in 1994, Juan Antonio Saramanch, the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Samaranch said,

“I came to pay tribute and homage to Dr Brookes who really was the founder of the Modern Olympic Games.”

Much Wenlock’s Museum and Visitor Information Centre on the corner of High Street and Wilmore Street displays a collection of documents and artefacts associated with Brookes and the Much Wenlock Olympian Games.  It is also the starting point for the Oympian Trial which takes visitors to all the major landmarks linked to the town’s Olympic connection.

Visit Britain has produced this video on Penny Brookes and Much Wenlock.

Die Turnhalle: Britain’s first gymnasium

By , 20th July 2010 15:36

The German Gymnasium, originally known as Die Turnhalle, is believed to have been the first purpose built gymnasium in Britain.

Designed by Edward Gruning (1837-1908), it was completed in 1865 as the home for the German Gymnastics Society.   Founded by the German-born cartographer and geographer Ernst Ravenstein in 1861, the German Gymnastics Society was ground-breaking: it was one of the first clubs to hold classes for women.

Alongside William Penny Brookes of the Wenlock Olympian Society and John Hulley of the Liverpool Gymnasium, Ernst Ravensteinwas a member of the triumvirate that masterminded the creation of the National Olympian Association in 1865.  The Gymnasium hosted the indoor events of the inaugural National Olympian Games in 1866.

The building stands between St Pancras and Kings Cross stations in London.  As part of the large scale redevelopment of this area, part of the Grade II listed building had to be demolished to accommodate the re-routing of St Pancras Road.   Behind the new facade, many original features remain including the arched roof beams made of laminated timber and the hooks which suspended ropes and gymnastic equipment from the beams.

Today, the German Gymnasium is the marketing suite for the Kings Cross Central redevelopment project and contains a fascinating scale model of the plans for the area.  The ground floor is accessible to the public during office hours.

From the adjacent St Pancras Station, Javelin trains will run a high-speed shuttle service from central London to Olympic Park in Stratford for the 2012 Olympic Games.

2012 mascots celebrate Much Wenlock & Stoke Mandeville

By , 20th May 2010 13:25

So LOCOG has unveiled Wenlock and Mandeville, its (first?) mascots.

Described as having been “created from the last drops of steel left over from the construction of the final support girder for the Olympic Stadium,” the new mascots are the first to have been designed for the new media age.  They will inevitably be available as cuddly toys as well!

Its great to see that they commemorate the significant contributions that two towns – away from London – have made to the development of the Olympic and Paralympic movements.

Much Wenlock, to the south west of Telford in Shropshire, first staged the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850.  Established by a local doctor, William Penny Brooks, who harboured a vision of reviving the Olympic Games in Greece, the Wenlock Olympian Games predate the “first Olympic Games of the modern era” by nearly half a century.

In 1889, the initiative came to the attention of the young Baron Pierre de Coubertin who shared Penny Brooks’ vision of re-establishing the Olympics as an international celebration of sport.  A visit by the French nobleman to the Shropshire town in 1890 was a significant milestone along the road to the creation of the International Olympic Committee.

The 124th Wenlock Olympian Games were staged between 9 and 12 July 2010.

Stoke Mandeville’s most famous sporting connection also starts with a doctor. In February 1944, Dr.Ludwig Guttmann arrived at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, to set up a new unit to deal with war casualties suffering from spinal cord injuries.

Sir Ludwig believed sport would help his patients make the most of their remaining physical capabilities while providing much-needed exercise. Sport would also help patients rebuild their self-esteem and provide the confidence to contemplate re-entering the world of work.  Initially, games for individuals such as darts, archery, snooker and table ten­nis were offered, but these were quickly supplemented by team sports including wheelchair polo and basketball.

To coincide with the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Sir Ludwig organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled athletes.  Over the following years, the Stoke Mandeville Games expanded steadily, attracting ever more international competitors and laying the foundations for the Paralympic Games.  If Olympia is the spiritual home of the Olympic Games, Stoke Mandeville can justifiably claim to be the Olympia of the Paralympic Games.

Today, Stoke Mandeville is the UK’s National Centre for Disability Sport offering facilities for a wide variety of land- and water-based sports and regularly hosting competitions.

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