The British Olympics

Britain's Olympic heritage 1612-2012

By: Martin Polley
RRP: £17.99 (post-free to UK)
£10 (post-free to UK)
Format: 200pp softback 210mm x 210mm
ISBN: 978 1848020 580
Published by English Heritage in September 2011

In 2012, London became the first city in the world to have staged the modern Olympic games three times. But as historian Martin Polley reveals, amazingly, Britain's Olympic heritage actually goes back 400 years.

Never mind the 1948 or 1908 Games, the first recorded Olympic Games in Britain took place in 1612. And that was only the beginning of a long and fascinating relationship between the British and all things Olympian.

As history records, the Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece nearly three thousand years ago, died out around 393 AD, and were triumphantly reborn in 1896, in the Greek capital of Athens. Rather less well known is how, during the intervening centuries, an assortment of British writers, romantics, sportsmen and visionaries helped to nurture that revival. Indeed our nation's fascination with all things Olympian has played a pivotal role in shaping the Games as we know them today.

As Martin Polley recounts in this lavishly illustrated book, the first published use of the word 'Olympian' in the English language dates from around 1590. Its author? William Shakespeare.

The first Games of the post-classical era to adopt the formal title 'Olimpick' took place in a field close to the Cotswold village of Chipping Campden in 1612. Further 'Olympic' Games took place in a number of locations, including Much Wenlock (Shropshire), Liverpool, London, Llandudno, Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Oswestry and in the Northumberland town of Morpeth.

An avowed anglophile and devotee of the Rugby School headmaster Thomas Arnold, the French founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, borrowed many ideas from the British. But he was chiefly inspired by a Shropshire doctor, William Penny Brookes, the originator of the Wenlock Olympian Games, whom he visited in 1890. The Wenlock Olympian Games are still held annually in July.

The modern day marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards was not, as is often stated, established in 1908 to suit the demands of the royal family, but was arrived at purely by chance because of a number of last minute changes to the start and finish of the route.

The modern day Paralympics originated in post war Britain. They were the brainchild of a German refugee, Dr Ludwig Guttmann, working at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire during the 1940s.

When London trumped Paris for the right to stage the 2012 Games it was the first time that a British city had ever triumphed in a formal bidding process. In both 1908 and 1948 London stepped in to assist the International Olympic Committee when all other options were ruled out.

Thus the 2012 Games represent the culmination of over 400 years of British enthusiasm for the Olympics; an attachment that has left in its wake a trail of fascinating stories, characters, sites, buildings and artefacts.

Leading the reader on a marathon journey, and profusely illustrated with archive images, specially commissioned contemporary photographs and detailed mapping, The British Olympics charts this fascinating tale, resulting in a vital and entertaining source for anyone with an interest in the Games, in sport and in Britain's wider cultural history.


Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpicks

Withy sticks at the ready, participants at Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpicks put on a demonstration of cudgel fighting. Such contests have featured at the Games since the 17th century, the original object being to draw blood from one's opponent's head.

From page 1 of The British Olympics
(Photograph © English Heritage)


Wenlock Olympian Games

The Wenlock Olympian Society's penchant for pomp and ceremony is exemplified by this collection of Games regalia, one of several displays devoted to the Olympian Games housed in Much Wenlock Museum.

From page 44 of The British Olympics
(Photograph © English Heritage)



Tommy Godwin (90) with the vest he wore and the two bronze medals he won at Herne Hill Velodrome in 1948. Godwin is supporting the campaign to secure the future of the velodrome, the only surviving finals venue from the 1948 Games.

From page 187 of The British Olympics
(Photograph © Lara Thornton)

The British Olympics contents

Chapter 1: Introduction - the 2012 Games in context • Britain's long association with the Olympics • Olympianism and athleticism • Olympianism v Olympism • the road to 2012 • in search of Britain's Olympic heritage •

Chapter 2: Olympia and Britannia - the ancient Olympic Games • Shakespeare's reference to Olympian Games in 1591 • Olympia 'lost' for 1,000 years • the Olympics in classical literature • Richard Chandler's party rediscover Olympia in the 1760s • English Olympic festivals • vogue for 'Olympic' places of entertainment • Olympia excavated • formation of the IOC 1894 • first modern Games Athens 1896 •

Chapter 3: Cotswold Olimpick Games - Robert Dover's Games at Chipping Campden 1612 • struggle between religion and popular culture • King James 1 Book of Sports published 1618 • Annalia Dubrensia poems celebrating Dover's Games published 1636 • Games ceased during Civil War, revived after the Restoration 1660 • Games die out 1852 • 20th century revival • map showing site of Games •

Chapter 4: Wenlock Olympian Games - Dr William Penny Brookes establishes the Games 1850 • emergence of 'rational' recreation • sporting prowess and intellectual improvement encouraged • Shropshire Olympian Society formed 1861 • Brookes founder member National Olympian Association 1865 • Games die out early 20th century • modern Wenlock Olympian Games revived 1977 • IOC stamp of approval 1994 • map showing site of Games • Wenlock official 2012 mascot •

Chapter 5: Liverpool Olympic Festivals - Charles Melly & John Hulley set up Liverpool Athletic Club • first use of Mens Sana In Corpore Sano in modern age • first Liverpool Olympic Festival 1862 • festival moves to Llandudno 1865 and 1866 • international competitors and emphasis on amateurism • festivals die out after 1867 event •

Chapter 6: National Olympian Games - William Penny Brookes and John Hulley help form the National Olympian Association 1865 • world's first national Olympian association • German Gymnasium, King's Cross opens 1865 • first NOA Games London 1866 • 3 days of events on Thames, at Crystal Palace and German Gymnasium • second NOA Games Birmingham 1867 • Manchester refuses to host 1868 Games • 1883 last NOA Games held near Much Wenlock • NOA led to National Physical Recreation Society, one of founders of British Olympic Association 1905 •

Chapter 7: Morpeth Olympic Games - cash prizes attracted professional athletes • first reports from 1870 • 1882 billed as Olympic Games • by 1895 Games attracted 15,000 spectators • Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling main event • betting rife • boxing matches encouraged contestants from all over country • reconvened after both World Wars • last Games 1959 • 1985 brief revival • map showing site of Games •

Chapter 8: Coubertin and the British - influence of Tom Brown's School Days and Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School • Henley Regatta • meeting with William Penny Brookes at Much Wenlock • Coubertin plants an oak • inspired by Britain Coubertin founds International Olympic Committee 1894 • first modern Games Athens 1896 • Much Wenlock acknowledged by IOC 1994 •

Chapter 9: London Olympic Games 1908 - Paris host in 1900 • St Louis host in 1904 • British Olympic Association formed 1905 • Britain steps in to host 1908 Games after Vesuvius erupts • Lord Desborough takes up the challenge • White City Stadium built as part of Franco-British Exhibition • British sporting rules and regulations to the fore • gold, silver and bronze medals introduced • maps showing sites of Games • surviving buildings and artefacts • route of 1908 marathon • explanation of marathon's length • tragic Dorando Pietri • fate of stadium •

Chapter 10: London Olympic Games 1948 - Britain steps in again to host 'Austerity Olympics' • largest Games yet with over 4,000 athletes • first to be seen by significant television audience • Lord Burghley's key role • British sense of fair play and hospitality to the fore • artists produce memorable artwork and artefacts • route of Olympic torch relay from Olympia • athletes housed in former army camps and RAF stations • maps showing sites of Games • Wembley gets ready • photo finish cameras and starting blocks debut • route of 1948 marathon • Empire Pool, Herne Hill Velodrome and Henley play major roles • Army host at Aldershot • medals and commemorations •

Chapter 11: Stoke Mandeville Games - birth of the Paralympics • role of Dr Ludwig Guttmann • wheelchair archery competition held on day of 1948 Olympics opening ceremony • competition evolved into annual event featuring range of wheelchair sports • 1952 first international competitors take part • 1959 International Stoke Mandeville Committee set up • Games established in international locations as interest grows • 1984 Stoke Mandeville steps in to host • from Seoul in 1988 Paralympics part of main Games • Mandeville official 2012 mascot • Special Olympics for people with learning disabilities established in USA 1960s •

Chapter 12: British Olympians - commemorations and celebrations • blue plaques • statues • road signs • sports stadiums • trains and planes • swimming baths •

Chapter 13: Legacy - role of Olympic Park Legacy Company and Legacy Trust UK • scattered collections and archives of Olympic related material • Winning Endeavours website • Our Sporting Life touring exhibition • Olympic Games Knowledge Management programme • UK Web Archive • The Record • call for permanent Olympic 'Hall of Sport' or museum •