Small rural English town claims Games heritage

CHIPPING CAMPDEN (Reuters) - Tug of war and shin kicking will be the feature events when a small rural English town stages its 400-year-old “Olimpick” games this week.

The founder of the Chipping Campden games, Father John Brennan - dressed as a17th-century aristocrat (L), the Queen's pageboy, Robert Dover (2nd L), the Scuttlebrook Queen (3rd L), and her attendants and pipers arrive to open the games in Chipping Campden, southern England June 1, 2007. REUTERS/Betty Stoker/Handout

Chipping Campden has repainted the wooden “castle” used as a backdrop and chosen the 15-year-old May Queen who will preside over Friday’s competition on the edge of the Cotswold Hills.

This year’s games will be almost identical to those held in the 17th century and townspeople proudly claim theirs are the original modern Olympics.

Nobleman Robert Dover, returning home from the King’s court, decided the local gentry “could do with a bit of exercise,” said Clive Thompson, vice-chairman of the Robert Dover’s Games Society.

The only element the 17th century gentry might not recognize is the Chinese lion dance and wudang sword display planned to bring a modest Beijing flavor to this year’s event.

Standing on Dover Hill where the games will be held, Thompson said they mix traditional English sports, such as tug of war and “a lot of water, straw and falling over,” with the same philosophy behind the Beijing Olympics in August.

“They maintain the true spirit of the Olympics, of healthy competition between young people,” he said.

Although Dover did not originally link his games with ancient Greece, the events inspired a group of poets in 1636 to write a book praising their “Olimpick” achievements.

One of the most popular events is shin kicking where competitors dress in medieval white smocks, stuff their trousers with protective straw and aim kicks at their opponents’ legs, hoping to knock them to the ground.

Britain used Chipping Campden’s little piece of Olympic history in its successful bid for the 2012 Games.

“These early ‘Olimpick’ competitors were as remote as you could imagine from the Olympic stars of today...but whatever the eccentric nature of the event, this was the pre-dawn of the Olympic movement,” the BOA wrote in its bid.

“The Cotswold games began the historical thread in Britain that was ultimately to lead to the creation of the modern Olympics.”


Organizers say Robert Dover’s involvement began with the 1612 games, meaning their 400th anniversary will take place in the same year as the London Olympics.

But Chipping Campden, two hours drive from London, is not alone in claiming a share of Olympic heritage for Britain.

Historians recognize the important role of William Penny Brookes, the founder of the annual games at Much Wenlock, a small market town in Shropshire, in the revival of the Olympics in the 1890s.

A French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, is credited with resurrecting the Games, inspired by the original events in ancient Olympia.

But some of that credit should perhaps be given to Greek Evangelis Zappas and Brookes, a doctor and keen classicist.

Brookes, concerned for the health of his patients in Much Wenlock, organized a series of games he described as “Olympic” in 1850, which later grew to become the British Olympic Games.

Oddly, the first event open to women was knitting.

Brookes proposed to the Greek government that his and the Athens games Zappas founded in 1859 should be internationalized, according to an article at the time in a Greek newspaper, but the proposal was politely declined.

However, when de Coubertin, the organizer of an international congress on physical education, visited Brookes in 1890 the two discussed the notion of resurrecting the Olympics.

He took the idea back to Greece and within four years had formed the International Olympic Committee and persuaded the Greek government to host the first international Games in 1896.

At his home in Chipping Campden, Thompson wonders why de Coubertin did not also visit his town, 120 km from Much Wenlock.

“Perhaps no one told de Coubertin about these games,” he said, before remembering magistrates had stopped events at that time because the spectators engaged in “hooliganism and lawlessness.”

Thompson denied any rivalry between the Olympians of Much Wenlock and Chipping Campden. But in the programme for the games, his society’s chairman Graham Greenall takes a swipe at the British and Beijing competition.

“In spite of ... a couple of imitators we are still the oldest Olimpick society in the world,” he writes.

Editing by Robert Woodward