The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start
What is known as Wenlock Edge, a great palisade, almost 1,000 feet high, running for 15 miles through the county of Shropshire, overlooks, near its eastern end, the tidy town of Much Wenlock. (Much Wenlock being so named, you see, to distinguish it from its even wee-er neighbor, Little Wenlock.) However, to this quaint backwater village near Wales came, in 1994, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, the grandiose president of the International Olympic Committee.
Samaranch, an old spear carrier for Franco, was a vainglorious corporate politician, either obsequious or imperious, depending on the company, who was never much given to generosity. Yet he found his way to Much Wenlock, where he trooped out to the cemetery at Holy Trinity Church and placed a wreath on a grave there. Samaranch then declared that the man who lay at his feet beneath the Shropshire sod “really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games.”
That fellow was affectionately known as Penny Brookes; more formally, he was Dr. William Penny Brookes, the most renowned citizen of Much Wenlock—at least since the eighth century, when the prioress of the abbey there, St. Milburga, regularly worked miracles (notably with birds she could order about), while also displaying a singular ability to levitate herself. If not quite so spectacular as the enchanted prioress, Penny Brookes was certainly a man of consequence—fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, town magistrate and founder of the National Olympian Association in 1865—which, significantly, he created years before the International Olympic Committee was formed. Still, notwithstanding Samaranch’s homage, Brookes and his little town are seldom cited in Olympic liturgy.
Olympic myth runs rife, too, generously embroidered with Pollyanna. Most particularly, from its inception, modern Olympic advocates have trumpeted that their sweaty contests are much more uplifting—a noble “movement” of brotherhood that will somehow influence us grubby mortals to stop our common carping and warring. Alas, poetry and peace always then fly off with the doves.
Also gospel is it that a Frenchman, venerating Greek antiquity, cowered by German physicality, was the initiating force behind the re-creation of the Games. But that’s only true so far as it goes. The fact is that the modern Olympics owe their birth and their model and, ultimately, their success foremost to England. For that matter, as we shall see, the first London Games, those of 1908, which were fashioned out of whole cloth by a towering Edwardian named Willie Grenfell—or Lord Desborough, as he had become—essentially saved the Olympics as an institution. It’s really quite appropriate that, in a few weeks hence, London will become the first city since Olympia to host the Games three times.