Part 15: The Inspiration for the Modern Olympics

In fact, just as England's first Olimpicks and other festivals were being shut down, a replacement of sorts was beginning barely 60 miles away, in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock.

These new games, started in 1850, were similar in spirit to Dover's early competition and went on to inspire the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympics.

The Wenlock Olympian Games included ancient contests like racing and modern events such as football.

Their founder, Dr. William Penny Brookes, had read about Dover's Olimpicks in one of his favourite books, which he gave as a prize at the Wenlock event.

Dr. William Penny Brookes

Just as Dover had defended his "harmelesse honest sports" against the Puritans 200 years earlier, Penny Brookes hailed the "harmless recreation" of "Merrie England" and talked of the need to train "a noble, manly race" to build the Empire and prevent the "physical degeneracy" seen in France and America.

However, Penny Brookes had his own puritanical leanings.

As an archetypal Victorian reformer, he believed in temperance.

What's more, it wasn't enough that the games were fun; they had to serve a Higher Moral Purpose.

"As Christians we should, on moral grounds, endeavour to direct the amusement of the working classes—as patriots we should recognise and promote them."

Despite some powerful opponents, the doctor's crusade quickly grew from its village roots to become the National Olympian Association.

Penny Brookes was working on the most ambitious phase—an international event in Athens—when he came across a young Frenchman who had the same goal, as well as the connections to make it happen.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was that rarest of things: a Frenchman who admired Britain.

The future founder of the Olympics had read Tom Brown's Schooldays and come to believe in its ethos of "muscular Christianity".

"Since ancient Greece has passed away, the Anglo-Saxon race is the only one that fully appreciates the moral influence of physical culture," he wrote.

The 27-year-old made a pilgrimage to Much Wenlock in 1890.

Unfortunately, Penny Brookes died four months before De Coubertin staged the first modern Olympics in 1896.

However, he is still regarded as "the father of the English Olympics", and Wenlock continues to host its games every July.

Meanwhile, Robert Dover's contribution was all but forgotten. Britain's oldest Olimpicks were killed off in 1852 after Rev. Bourne succeeded in enclosing Dover's Hill.

The organisers stayed defiant to the end.

As the vicar won his legal victory in Parliament, they looked to the future: "The celebrated and renowned Olimpic (sic) Games… are esteemed by all brave, true and free-spirited Britons," their posters declared. "The good old times will be revived."

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©J.R. Daeschner

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