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24 September 2014
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Father of the modern Olympics
by Ben Jeffrey, BBC News Online
William Penny Brooks (picture copyright Wenlock Olympian Society)
William Penny Brookes (picture copyright Wenlock Olympian Society)
William Penny Brookes devoted his life to improving the lot of the people of his home town of Much Wenlock. But it was his idea to revive the Olympian ideal that was to have a worldwide impact and lead to the modern Olympics.
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His vision for the Olympic Games is hailed as one of modern sports greatest achievements.

But Baron Pierre de Coubertain was almost certainly inspired to create the global games festival after a bureaucratic fact-finding mission that led him to a small town in Shropshire.

It was while enjoying the efforts of the people of Much Wenlock as they battled for honours in pursuits such as quoit-throwing and cricket, that Coubertain realised the potential for the modern Olympics.

And the man behind these humble beginnings was a burly, bearded doctor called William Penny Brookes.

A Victorian cyclist (Picture copyright Wenlock Olympian Society
The Wenlock Games were open to "every grade of man"

Coubertain, the man most usually associated with the modern Olympic revival, had not conceived of the competition that he helped organise in Athens in 1896 until he went to Britain to try to find out more about sports in English public schools.

Brookes learnt of Coubertain's visit and invited the Frenchman, then 27-years-old, to come to the Much Wenlock Olympian Society's games held every year in his town, situated about 20 miles west of Wolverhampton.

Coubertain was impressed with what he saw and sat up with Brookes long into the night discussing how the Wenlock games might be translated on to a bigger stage.

The influential and wealthy Frenchman was inspired to channel his energies in the direction of what had long been Brookes' dream - a modern, international games, the first of which took place in Athens in 1896.

Although Brookes did not live to see the Olympic revival - he died months before aged 86 - much of what happened at the first Modern Olympiad was based on his own ideas.

The 1896 Olympics were open to all sportsmen from across the world.

There were no restrictions based on social class, much like the Wenlock Games, which were designed by Brookes for "every grade of man".

Women were not at this stage welcome to compete in either games.

The concept of moving the Olympics from city to city was also based on another of Brookes' ideas.

As well as his town contest, the doctor had helped establish the National Olympian Association (NOA), which featured yearly sporting festivals held across England.

One of these was at London's Crystal Palace, where another bearded giant of Victorian sport, WG Grace, took part.

Each year the NOA games were held in a different town or city, and the place which hosted them financed the meeting, as is the case with the Olympics today.

Helen Cromarty, a historian, filmmaker and public relations secretary of the still-surviving Wenlock Olympian Society, said: "Coubertain took that model.

"He realised he could have the first games in Athens and then he would move it from city to city.

"This was something which had never been done before and was unknown, apart from Brookes."

Cyclist competing in the Wenlock games: (Picture copyright Wenlock Olympian Society
The Wenlock Games are still contested

Even the modern games' opening ceremony drew its inspiration from Much Wenlock.

Mrs Cromarty said: "The Much Wenlock procession was very spectacular.

"They came through the town round the games field, very similar to the opening ceremony in the Olympics today.

"When Coubertain came to Much Wenlock in 1890 he saw that and loved the pageantry."

Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), visited Much Wenlock in 1994 and laid a wreath at Brookes' grave.

He acknowledged the GP's contribution: "I came to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games."

 
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