Living legacy of Wenlock’s Games

By Simon Turnbull, Independent on Sunday
The unflappable Mrs Smith – the sports co-ordinator at William Brookes School, housed within the same grounds as the Much Wenlock Leisure Centre – welcomes the world to the 121st Wenlock Olympian Games. “You should all feel special,” she tells the assembled children, “because you’re part of the event that started the modern Olympics.”

Juan Antonio Samaranch made much the same point when he made the pilgrimage to this idyllic corner of the Shropshire countryside as president of the International Olympic Committee in 1994. “I have come because this is where the modern Olympics started,” he said. Samaranch also came to Much Wenlock to lay a wreath at the grave of Dr William Penny Brookes at Holy Trinity Church. “Dr Brookes was really the founder of the modern Olympics,” Samaranch added.

And so he was, this doctor-cum-philanthropist from Much Wenlock. It was in 1850 that Brookes staged a revived version of the ancient Olympics in Wenlock – 46 years before Pierre de Coubertin did so in Athens.

The French baron did so on a far grander scale, of course, but it was Brookes who first campaigned for an international Olympics.

As Helen Cromarty, an indefatigable committee member of the Much Wenlock Olympian Society, says: “It was by putting physical education into French schools that De Coubertin wanted to make his mark. That’s why he came to England, to visit Rugby School. It was Brookes who inspired him to push for an international Olympic Games.”

De Coubertin visited Much Wenlock in 1890, meeting Brookes and attending the Olympian Games in the town. A dinner was held in his honour at The Raven Hotel. On his return to France, the baron wrote in La Revue Athlétique: “If the Olympic Games, which modern Greece did not know how to establish again, is revived today it is not to a Greek that one is indebted but to Dr W P Brookes.”

Sadly, the good doctor was not to survive long enough to see his international Olympic dream become reality. He died in December 1895, four months before the first modern Olympics were held in Athens. Still, the legacy of William Penny Brookes lives on.

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