Small English town stakes claim to Olympic legacy
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MUCH WENLOCK, England -- With the 2012 London Olympics just over a year away, a small town in central England is celebrating early, and with good reason.
While the first modern Olympics took place in Athens, Greece, in 1896, Much Wenlock began staging its "Olympian" nearly 50 years earlier.
The town of 2,000 about 150 miles northwest of London owes this legacy to Dr. William Penny Brookes, who first organized the games and promoted them for the rest of his life. Former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch laid a wreath on Brookes' grave in 1994, saying, "I came to pay tribute and homage to Dr. Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games."
The London organizing committee for 2012 also honored the town that dates to medieval times, naming one of its two official mascots for next year's games "Wenlock."
A typical program of events from 1850 featured running and leaping competitions and throwing a cricket ball, as well as non-athletic pursuits such as choir singing and awards for reading, arithmetic, knitting and sewing.
The 2011 version of the "Wenlock Olympian Festival" will take place July 8-11. Events planned include archery, badminton, clay pigeon shooting, golf, tennis, a seven-mile road race, triathlon and events for the disabled, some against able-bodied competition.
"Brookes wanted sports for all, at all levels and over broad bases," says Kirk Heywood, owner of the town's 17th-century Raven Hotel. Heywood was speaking just yards from the site of a meeting some 120 years earlier that would shape the future of the Olympic Games.
In October 1890, Brookes met Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, widely regarded as the founder of the modern Olympics, over several hours at the Raven. The two -- Brookes was then 81, the baron just 27 -- spoke about de Coubertin's wish to stage an international Olympic festival in Athens.
The two exchanged letters over the next several years. Even then, de Coubertin was determined to make sure his games were strictly for amateurs.
"The only trouble we have with reference to professionalism is with the country towns money prizes are given very often for bicycle races," the baron wrote in a letter framed and displayed on The Raven's dining room wall. "Of course we don't allow it."
Amateurism eventually gave way at the Olympics, as professional athletes began competing in most high-profile sports such as track and field, basketball, football and ice hockey by the end of the 20th century.
Much Wenlock today is as much as it was several centuries ago, devoid of fast-food chains and any semblance of modern buildings in the town center.
Visitors can walk the Olympian Trail, a marked route over 1.5 miles and relive the town's history by walking to Linden Field, where the annual competitions are held; the house in Wilmore Street where Brookes was born in 1809, and a running track sprung up from the remains of a now disused rail line.
"We have gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure this town stays as much as it was like centuries ago," says Shropshire Council tourism officer Tim King as he takes visitors on a tour of the town, exchanging greetings with most shopowners on a first-name basis.
The nearby town of Shrewsbury, birthplace of Charles Darwin, also held Brookes-inspired competitions in the 1800s, and revived them this year for the first time in 130 years. In late June, the town held maypole dancing, eight-legged races, a greased pig catch and a cannon ball throw.
The legacy of the competitions has lived on. Harold Langley won the Wenlock pentathlon gold medal in 1923 and competed for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics alongside Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddle, runners immortalized in the film "Chariots of Fire."
Alison Williamson won the Much Wenlock archery silver medal as a 10-year-old in 1981. She went on to represent Britain at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics, winning a bronze medal at Athens in 2004.
Brookes died in December 1895, just five months before the 1896 Athens Games. He was born, maintained his medical practice, and died in the house at 4 Wilmore Street in the town, and was buried with other family members just across the street at Holy Trinity Church.
His grave site is a popular reflection stop along the Olympian Trail, and the Raven Hotel's owner Heywood appreciates why.
"To see these country bumpkin upstarts actually provide the foundation for the modern Olympics is something that William Penny Brookes would have loved to have seen come to fruition," says Heywood. "But in a way, he would have died knowing it was unstoppable."
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