MUCH WENLOCK, England (Reuters) - A medieval town in rural England is reveling in the Olympics as a long-forgotten story about how this remote community inspired the modern Games receives global recognition — and could possibly put Much Wenlock on the tourist map.
Although Athens is usually cited as the birthplace of the modern Games, that honor lies with Much Wenlock, a picture perfect 700-year-old English town in the county of Shropshire that boasts winding streets, traditional white-and-black timber beamed houses, limestone cottages and even an Abbey ruin.
The link dates back to William Penny Brookes, a doctor in the town 125 miles northwest of London, who believed in the benefits of physical exercise for “every grade of man”.
In 1850, before the game of lawn tennis was invented or athletics introduced at Oxford and Cambridge universities, Brookes set up the annual Wenlock Olympian Games featuring football, running and hopping.
This innovative multi-sports event, featuring men of all classes, expanded nationally with the first National Olympian Games held in London in 1866 with more to follow before a rival group took the idea to London and the event returned to Wenlock.
Brookes made his mark on history in 1890 when French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, visited Much Wenlock to discuss the doctor’s ethos of fair play in sport and the need to be healthy in body and mind.
His influence on de Coubertin inspired the revival of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 with the London Olympic organizers, LOCOG, acknowledging Brookes’ important role by naming the official 2012 Olympics mascot Wenlock.
“It is surprising really that few people in Britain were aware of this link. It really had become a forgotten story,” said Tim King, Tourism Officer for Shropshire Council, as the 126th Wenlock Olympian Games got underway this week.
“This is a one-off year for Much Wenlock. It is time to promote this story and attract more tourists. Tourism is vital here because there are no large industries.”
With four tea shops, a local butcher, a hardware store and a population of 2,600, Much Wenlock has retained the charm of a traditional English village with no supermarkets or major retailers allowed into its high street.
But like many small towns in rural England, it needs to increase tourism to bolster local businesses and stop people moving to larger urban centers to find work.
Tourism is vital to preserve economic activity in rural areas, accounting for about 10 percent of business in 2009/2010 which is little changed in the past decade, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Figures from VisitEngland, the national tourist board, showed day trips and overnight stays by Britons within the UK are a major contributor to the 97 billion pounds ($150.94 billion)generated by tourism each year and it is this market that Much Wenlock is targeting.
Last year 1.3 billion day trips were made within England by Britons which were worth 42.7 billion pounds and 46 million domestic overnight trips, worth just over 10 billion.
“This charming but quirky story is a great asset for Much Wenlock and they hope to get more visitors to come and appreciate this,” said local historian Catherine Beale who last year wrote the book “Born out of Wenlock. William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the modern Olympics.”
“Really this story should be better known in Britain than it is as it shows a lot about English sport... the ethos of fair play and being the best you can be.”
Chris Cannon, archivist at the Wenlock Olympian Society, said the links between Brookes and de Coubertin were well documented although the story was largely forgotten for years.
“Much Wenlock is a small place in the middle of nowhere and people outside this area just didn’t take any notice of it,” Cannon told Reuters, while touring the newly renovated Much Wenlock museum that underwent a 500,000 pounds facelift last year.
He said the story really emerged again in 1990 when a visiting academic studying Olympic history went through a box of letters between Brookes and de Coubertin and saw the significance.
Brookes was aged 81 and de Coubertin was 27 when the two men met in Much Wenlock for five days.
Brookes had spent his life dedicated to the promotion of sport. As well as setting up the Wenlock Olympian Games, he campaigned tirelessly to get physical education put on the national schools’ curriculum, succeeding just before his death.
He also corresponded with the authorities in Greece, urging them to revive the Olympics.
Meanwhile de Coubertin was looking for inspiration after his nation’s humiliation in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.
He admired the way English schools used sports such as rugby in education to build character and strength, so he put an announcement in English newspapers asking if anyone could advise him about national sport in schools and Brookes wrote to him.
In 1890 de Coubertin came to Much Wenlock to meet Brookes and watched a Wenlock Olympian Games which included an opening procession and ceremony and medals with the Greek goddess Nike.
On his return to France, de Coubertin used his money and international political clout to expand on his idea of an international sports competition and revive the ancient Greek Olympics, a dream which became a reality in 1896.
Brookes died four months before the Athens Olympics but Cannon said de Coubertin initially gave him full credit as the inspiration behind the modern Olympics.
These mentions, however, died out as the Games grew and the story was largely forgotten even though some traces of the Wenlock Olympian Games continue in the Olympics.
“The use of this Olympic model for a modern games with its pageantry, parade of athletes and medal ceremonies comes from here,” Beale told Reuters. “It is nice to finally have Wenlock’s role acknowledged as being so central and important to the Olympic Games.”
Residents of Much Wenlock were hoping the spotlight this year would pay off for the town for years to come.
“The Olympic link is very important as it is something unique and gives a focal point to the town,” accountant Charlotte Reid told Reuters over a glass of nettle wine at an outdoor music festival to celebrate the 2012 Olympics.
“Tourism is key for Much Wenlock. We need this to thrive.”
Created by Belinda Goldsmith, editing by Alan Baldwin