Shin Kicking, Races for Old Women, and Other Events at Britain’s Premodern Olympics

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 24 2012 8:15 AM

Bear Baiting, Shin Kicking, and Races for Old Women

The surprising British origins of the modern Olympic Games.

Dr. William Penny Brookes, “the grandfather of the modern Olympics.”
Dr. William Penny Brookes, “the grandfather of the modern Olympics.”

Photo courtesy Wenlock Olympian Society.

Greek patriots may look askance at London hosting its third Olympic Games while the event’s ancient originator has hosted it only twice. On one level, the resentment is understandable. The classical games were the greatest emblem of Hellenic culture for nearly 11 centuries, from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D. But the modern revival of the Olympics in 1896, after a 1,500-year hiatus, is not a black-and-white tale of a Greek ritual being pilfered. In fact, the 19th-century restoration might never have occurred without the efforts of the British, particularly a group of eccentric, upper-crust Victorians who were obsessed with sports, the classics, and the idealized male form in Greek art.

Even in ancient Britain, an outpost of the Roman Empire from 43-410, Greek-style athletics were not unknown. Provincial towns such as Bath had their thermae, heated bathing complexes with splendid indoor pools and an attached palaestra for exercising in the revered Greek style. Although gladiatorial combats were more popular with the British crowds, fragments of pottery, glass, and mosaics have been discovered depicting Greek athletic events such as discus throwing, wrestling, and boxing. Chariot racing, a key event at the Olympics, was also followed with enthusiasm: In 2004, archaeologists unearthed a stadium in Colchester that dates back around 2,000 years.

The ancient Olympic Games ended in the fourth century, when its pagan rituals were no longer tolerated by Christian emperors and the Roman Empire itself was crumbling under the weight of barbarian invasions. The magnificent shrine where the games were held, Olympia, was repeatedly sacked, its treasures destroyed, and its location forgotten by all but local peasants. It would not be for another 1,000 years, during the Renaissance, that Britons would join the European revival of interest in the classical world. Ancient sagas became grist for Shakespeare, while Pindar’s Olympic odes endowed the name of Olympia with a magical talismanic ring.

A contemporary depiction of Robert Dover's "Olympick Games."
A contemporary depiction of Robert Dover's "Olympick Games."

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It was during this period that an extravagant, history-loving lawyer named Robert Dover convened the “Olympick” festival in the green hillsides of the Cotswolds. At the time, in the 1620s, Puritans were attacking England’s traditional rural festivals for promoting gambling, drinking, and lewd behavior. Dover’s Olympicks were an act of defiance against this dour movement, and as an annual event, it lured thousands of spectators of all social classes to sit on muddy hillsides near the village of Chipping Campden. A motley range of sports was on the schedule, including hammer throwing, bear baiting, shin kicking, and the brutally violent “fighting with cudgels,” which left the contestants bloody and toothless (an accidental echo of the goriest of the ancient Greek body contact sports, the pankration).

The entire festival was marked by heavy imbibing of ale and a genial air of license, though Dover also included a “Homeric harpist” in an attempt to lift the tone and thus attract the gentry. One English poet in 1636 hailed Dover as a “Hero of this our Age.” But the exuberant festival could not last. The Cotswold games were canceled in 1642 due to nearby fighting during the civil war. Dover died heartbroken eight years later.

Our modern conception of sport would be born two centuries later in Victorian Britain. During this period, the growing middle class repressed lawless, brutal, rural competitions in favor of more civilized and regulated affairs. Teachers at exclusive schools such as Eton and Rugby began to espouse that physical education was crucial for health, moral well-being, team spirit, and general “manliness of character.” Rules for organized team sports such as soccer were codified. Europeans and Americans looked on at first in bemusement, then in admiration, as the cult of sports took hold in Victorian society and seemed to go hand-in-hand with the invincibility of the British Empire.

Ancient Greek competitions such as the discus throw had been all but forgotten until Victorian scholars revived them.
Ancient Greek competitions such as the discus throw had been all but forgotten until Victorian scholars revived them.

Copyright Lesley Thelander.

This new passion for exercise dovetailed naturally with curiosity about ancient Greece, which grew throughout the 19th century. Interest had been rekindled in 1766, when a group of traveling English scholars from the Society of Dilettanti “rediscovered” the site of ancient Olympia. By the 1800s, imaginative Oxford and Cambridge dons were idealizing the ancient athletic tradition and studying Greek statues and vases to revive events like the javelin and discus throws, which had not been practiced for more than a millennium.

The admiration for the Greek ideal of the male physique was not purely aesthetic. For upper-crust Victorians, conversations about “Greek love” of a man for a young boy allowed the expression of homoerotic desires that were otherwise forbidden. As historian Linda Dowling has put it, “the prestige of Greece … was so massive that invocations of Hellenism could cast a veil of respectability over even a hitherto unmentionable vice or crime.”

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The Victorian enthusiasm for sports was accompanied by class-specific distortions. On the scantiest of evidence, scholars espoused the idea that ancient Greek athletes were all “amateurs” who competed without reward except for wreaths. This cult of amateurism, which was later officially codified by organizations like the Amateur Athletic Association of England, has been denounced by historian David C. Young as “a kind of historical hoax” twisting ancient Greek texts to maintain an elitist sporting culture. In fact, except at the Olympics and three other “crown” games, the ancients lavished material prizes on the victors, who gained instant celebrity status. Even with regard to the Olympics, the material rewards for athletes were enormous once they returned to their home cities.

These amateurs-only regulations conveniently supported the new movement to keep the working classes out of top competitions, so educated gentlemen could prove they were superior to the masses in physical achievements as well as (they believed) mind and character. Under the new rules, any athlete who had ever accepted financial reward for training or competing was disqualified from the most prestigious contests, ensuring that sports would be reserved for gilded youth who had the funds and leisure time to train.

A more democratic development occurred in 1850, when an English country doctor began another version of a revived “Olympian Games.” The doctor, a devoted classicist named William Penny Brookes, launched these new Olympics in a Shropshire village called Much Wenlock. Surrounded by emerald green hills and attended by country gents, local merchants, and ruddy-faced farmers, the event had the air of a quaint rural carnival, although one more sober than Dover’s Olympicks.

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