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KIRK HEYWOOD, proprietor of the 17th-century Raven Hotel in the quiet Shropshire hamlet of Much Wenlock, carries a tray of tea and scones to guests lounging on lime-green Victorian-era couches, past sepia photos of tophatted gentlemen awarding olive garlands to tough-looking farmers. He nods toward some chairs in the corner. “Brookes could have been sitting right there,” he says, “making the speech that started the modern Olympics.”
In 1850, after studying 2,000- year-old Greek Olympic artifacts during his travels, Dr. William Penny Brookes — a peripatetic yet locally beloved teacher, physician and magistrate — introduced an Olympics-style competition to his hometown to improve the “moral, intellectual and physical qualities” of its residents. At the time, “the town had an unenviable reputation for drunkenness,” says Catherine Beale, historian and author of Born Out of Wenlock. “When the teetotalers came, the windows were broken out of the building where they met.”
Thanks in part to rural Shropshire’s lack of entertainment options (along with the endorsement of local nobleman Lord Forester and his cousin, the future Duke of Rutland, who provided a £1 note as a prize for a footrace), the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games caught on quickly. By the late 1870s, crowds topped 10,000. In 1890, France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin met Brookes at the Raven, and was so inspired by what the good doctor had created that he mounted a campaign resulting in the first international Olympic Games in Athens six years later.
This month, before the big names compete in London, the 126th Wenlock Olympian Games will feature more than 1,300 amateur athletes competing in track and field events, as well as novelties like lawn bowling and glider races. “Just don’t expect to see a revival of the ‘Old Woman’s Race for a Pound of Tea,’” Heywood says, laughing. “Or the contest to catch the greased piglet.” —BILL FINK
ILLUSTRATIONS BY PETER OUMANSKI