The British Olympics – Britain’s Olympic heritage 1612-2012

  • By: Martin Polley
  • Format: 200pp softback 210mm x 210mm
  • ISBN: 978 1848020 580
  • Published by English Heritage in September 2011
  • Special offer: £5 post-free to UK (original RRP 17.99) BUY NOW

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.

“With stunning photos, this book is a kind of alternative route map to follow as the 2012 extravaganza threatens to engulf us all.” ” Philosophy Football

“This is a superb book, richly illustrated and minutely researched.” Londonist

“A terrific publication, a joy to dip into and destined to be the definitive guide to Britain’s Olympic heritage for years to come.” Peter Lovesey, International Society of Olympic Historians

“The trickle of books to mark next summer in east London will soon become a flood, but so far easily the most vivid and exuberant is Martin Polley’s… I guarantee every literate and sporty child would relish a copy.” Frank Keating, The Guardian

“An enthralling narrative.” The Times

Martin Polley is the Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University. Martin’s first encounter with Olympic history came as a schoolboy athlete in west London when he found himself running past the old White City Stadium, following in the footsteps of the 1908 marathon runners. He has since walked the full route and written extensively on the events of that memorable day. Still a keen distance runner and a lifelong supporter of Brentford FC, he is the author of Moving the Goalposts: a history of Sport and Society since 1945 (Routledge, 1998), An A-Z of Modern Europe 1789–1999(Routledge, 2000) and Sports History: a practical guide (Palgrave, 2007). He also edited The History of Sport in Britain, 1880-1914 (Routledge, 2003).

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