Robbie Brightwell was a 16-year old student in Shropshire, England, and was straining to keep his eyes open while doing research in his local library when he came upon an old magazine and was struck by a picture of runners in a competition sometime in the late 19th century. As he related in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, he was surprised to see that in an area called Much Wenlock, not far from his own, there was a sporting event called “The Olympics”.
Intrigued, Brightwell, who went on to captain Britain’s track and field team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, began impromptu research into the Much Wenlock Games, and learned that Baron de Coubertin, at the age of 27, came to Much Wenlock and met an 81-year-old English physician, who planted the idea for what we now recognize as the Modern Olympics.
But as is true with any great endeavor, new ideas and initiatives are often built on earlier iterations. According to The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt, events held in both England and France could be considered precursors to Coubertin’s Olympics.
The Cotswold Games: In the early part of the 17th century, fairs and festivals were a common part of the English country lifestyle. One of the biggest in England was the Cotswold Games in Chipping Camden, a mixture of fun and sports, contests and gambling. As can be seen in the poster for the Cotswold Games, also known as the “Cotswold Olimpicks”, there was a mock castle created on a hill, in front of which was the main theater for the events. Developed by Robert Dover, a “charismatic and charming man”, the Cotswold Games featured “hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.” Dover established this country fair in 1612 and was able to organize the Cotswold Games for about 30 years. Unfortunately for Dover, and perhaps the community of Chipping Camden, the 1630s saw a shift from the hedonistic reign of King James I to a more conservative, puritanical approach of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the King in 1645. That put an end to the Cotswold Games.
The Republican Olympiad: When the French monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, leaders of the new republic were excited about change to come. One of the leaders of the revolution, Charles Gilbert Romme, devised a way to update the calendar for a new, enlightened France. With five days added to the year, with the inclusion of another day added to a Leap Year, which would take place every four years. According to Goldblatt, “Romme thought that the lead day might be a good occasion for staging public festivities and games: ‘we suggest calling it the French Olympiad and the final year the Olympics Year.” In 1796, the first Republican Olympiad was held in Paris, where hundreds of thousands came out for games, music, dancing, running and wrestling. Winners of competitions won wreaths of laurels, pistols, sabres, vases and watches. The Republican Olympiad continued for two more cycles, but died out before the start of the 19th century.
Pablo Fanque’s Travelling Circus Royal: As Goldblatt noted, the Olympics were often more often associated with circuses in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. One of the most popular traveling circuses was called Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, which offered an “unrivalled equestrian troupe” and ” new and novel features in the Olympian Games.” Pablo Fanque was said to be the most popular circus proprietor in a golden age of circuses in Victorian England, and was quite accomplished not only as an equestrian, but also as a master of the corde volante. But as you may be able to tell, Fanque’s association to the Olympics is peripheral at best. His association to The Beatles may be stronger. The album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite“, the lyrics of which are primarily lifted from an 1843 poster marketing Fanque’s Circus Royal.
The Much Wenlock Olympian Games: Dr Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England, agreed with the thinking of the time, that it was important to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town…by the encouragement of outdoor recreations and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises and industrial attainments.” The first Much Wenlock Olympic Games were held in 1850. While these Olympic Games were a rural fair, they also had a firm sporting focus. In addition to fun events like wheelbarrow and sack races, both amateurs and professionals competed in cricket, football, archery, hurdling, running, shooting, cycling and a pentathlon. Large cash prizes were awarded.
When Baron de Coubertin, was told about the Much Wenlock Olympic Games, he made it a point to visit and meet Dr Brookes, a seminal act in the origin story of the modern Olympic Games.