So, the Olympics. As cynical as we’ve become about doping, fiscal and political scandals in host cities, and the sheer pomp of the Games, the athletic performances themselves are truly stirring, skin-prickling stuff. And the Olympics hold a special kind of interest in my family because my uncle, Cheah Tong Kim, represented his country, Malaysia, in swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the past few days, watching highlights from the London Games got me thinking back to the birth of the modern Olympics. I knew they were a late-Victorian inspiration that resulted in the 1896 Games in Athens. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games.
Before the Victorian era, there was a modern attempt to recreate the Olympic Games: the L’Olympiade de la République, which was held for 3 years in revolutionary France (1789, remember?). It makes sense: egalitarianism, a chance to compete physically, rather than socially or economically – it was a perfect kind of celebratory contest for revolutionary times.
Then came a lapse of about 60 years, which also makes sense: Victorian intellectuals greatly admired classical literature and culture, and it’s logical that they wanted to emulate the famous athletic contests of the ancients. But the French Revolution scared the pants off Western European monarchies, so there had to be a lapse of a few generations between the L’Olympiade de la République and any safe imitation.
So it wasn’t until 1850 that an English surgeon called William Penny Brookes established an Olympic Games in Wenlock, Shropshire. According to wikipedia, his aim was the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes” (italics mine). That sort of paternalistic do-gooding couldn’t really be more Victorian.
There were other English Olympics: in Liverpool, for a few years in the 1860s. One at the Crystal Palace in London in 1860. But it was the Wenlock Olympics that really became a strong annual tradition. And in 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the modern Olympic Games, visited Wenlock and was inspired to establish the International Olympic Committee. Extraordinary, isn’t it?
How do you like the sound of Wenlock 2050, on the two-hundredth anniversary of their first Olympic Games?