Baron Pierre de Coubertin has rightfully earned his place in history as the father of the modern Olympics. Bolstered by a fervent belief in the power of athletics, the French aristocrat and academic established the precursor to the International Olympic Committee. But, improbable as it might seem, he drew inspiration from an English country doctor, William Penny Brookes.
Well before de Coubertin was even born in 1863, Dr. Brookes began preaching the health benefits of exercise and promoting physical fitness. He created the Greek-inspired Wenlock Olympian Games, named for the tiny hillside hamlet of Much Wenlock in the county of Shropshire. In October of 1850, townsfolk first gathered at the Much Wenlock racecourse to cheer on their neighbors in such competitions as foot racing, high and long jump, ring toss, and soccer. Over the next 161 years of annual matches, Wenlockians would bear witness to stone-throwing farmers, a sprinting postman who trained on his route, and a woodsman pole-vaulter who practiced courtesy of the local hedges. But the events were not merely athletic. Pursuits artistic (knitting, sewing, poetry, singing) and intellectual (arithmetic, essay writing, history, recitation) were also given their due. There were even opening and awards ceremonies, with wreaths and laurels bestowed on the local champs, at a different inn each year. In 1866, when de Coubertin was just 3 years old, Brookes spearheaded a national Olympian Games for the UK, held at the Crystal Palace in London. The event was a surprising success, attracting more than 10,000 competitors and spectators.
Across the Channel in the late 1880s, de Coubertin was working to organize what would become the international Olympic Games. News of de Coubertin’s dream of a global athletic competition superseding politics reached Brookes. The two visionaries met when de Coubertin visited Brookes in Much Wenlock in 1890. Brookes staged a special autumn festival for the occasion, and de Coubertin was said to be seduced by its “pomp and trappings,” according to Olympic historian David C. Young.
“If the Olympic Games, which modern Greece has not been able to revive, live again today, it is not to a Greek that we are indebted but rather to W. P. Brookes,” de Coubertin wrote in La Revue Athlétique in 1890. “It is he who inaugurated them 40 years ago, and it is he, now 82 years old but still alert and vigorous, who continues to organize and inspire them.” De Coubertin made the modern Olympics a reality with the first Games revival in Athens in 1896. Though Brookes would not live to see them—he died just months before—his progressive spirit has been the guiding force for every Olympic event since.
The Brits gave out the first standardized gold, silver, and bronze medals, and established the frenzy-inducing ceremony of trading Olympic pins.
Now, 146 years after Brookes’s national Olympian Games premiered there, London has become the first city to host three international Olympiads: 1908, 1948, and 2012. London’s contributions to the Games began in 1908, with the inaugural parade of nations, which inadvertently caused quite a stir. Not wanting to be associated with czarist Russia, the Finns insisted on marching a few paces behind their then-rulers, while the Irish (less than a decade from the Easter Rising) separated themselves from the rest of the British team. Meanwhile, the Americans were miffed that the Brits forgot to hang the Stars and Stripes from the rafters at White City Stadium. At the time, however, the U.S. flag bearer Ralph Rose’s refusal to lower Old Glory before King Edward VII was considered a far more egregious snub. Some have speculated that a famous quote by Rose’s teammate, the five-time gold medalist Martin Sheridan—“This flag dips to no earthly king”—was a direct reference to the slight, but the quip wasn’t reported for decades.
The 1908 edition introduced a bevy of new sports to the Games, including figure skating, rackets, and field hockey, some of which have had more staying power than others. It also initiated the lengthening of the marathon to 26 miles, 385 yards, an accommodation made so the race would finish in front of the royal box, as it did to stunning results—and perhaps the most iconic photo in Olympic history—when the Italian Dorando Pietri crossed the finish line first but was disqualified for getting a boost from two officials.
That same year, the Brits gave out the first standardized gold, silver, and bronze medals, and established the frenzy-inducing ceremony of trading Olympic pins. “There wasn’t the crazy trading they have in the tented village today, but it was wildly popular,” says British Olympic historian and Sky Sports broadcaster Philip Barker, author of The Story of the Olympic Torch. “In London, they were always a little cute about the marketing.”
Forty years later, London once again played host to the Games, and marked yet another Olympic milestone: the first televised Olympic broadcast. “The BBC paid something like 1,000 guineas, and the IOC, being gentlemen, never cashed the check,” says Barker. (The IOC’s sense of propriety has changed: Last year NBC secured the rights to the next four Olympic telecasts, from 2014 to 2020, for $4.38 billion.) Barker also notes that the Games had been captured on film dating back to 1900; the footage was just never distributed. The 1948 event in London, though, did produce the first color Olympic film. “I don’t think it’s a particularly good film. It was rushed out within a few weeks of the Games, but it’s not so bad,” Barker jokes. “The Leni Riefenstahl film [Olympia] from 1936 was the first real Hollywood-style production that really tried to make the Games into a beginning, middle, and end. It had a narration in many different languages, and lots of shots were faked and redone to the point of relighting the flame. They did the same in 1948 because of the civil war in Greece, so they restaged a lot of sequences including the torch relay.”
Meanwhile, a less formal set of games played out in the county seat of Buckinghamshire during the precursor to the Paralympics. The brainchild of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, the athletic contests—originally designed for World War II veterans with spinal injuries—were hosted at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and coincided with the ’48 Olympics. Their sport: archery. Only 12 years later, the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome, with 400 competitors from 23 nations. Now, International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven is also a member of the IOC, and London’s 2012 Games will be the first in which the IOC and IPC are fully integrated.
Another groundbreaking development for this year’s Olympics, and one of the events with the most buzz, is women’s boxing, which will be a medal sport for the first time. “In the early years the attitudes toward women were almost archaic, and they decided women could only take part in certain events,” Barker explains. “From 1908 to 1964 women couldn’t compete in any event over 200 meters. They had an 800 meter race in 1928, but [the press] said it was an unseemly spectacle.” This year, by contrast, “it’s hard for me to think of an event where it’s only men competing,” he says.
But perhaps the most enduring legacy of a London Olympics consists of words: the old Olympic creed. De Coubertin introduced the guiding principle at the 1908 London Games after hearing a Pennsylvania bishop give a sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral about the challenge being worth more than the prize.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games,” wrote de Coubertin, “is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Of course, winning gold ain’t too shabby, either.
Michael Slenske writers regularly for RL Magazine about art and culture.