How a tiny British town revived the first modern Olympic Games – and five more facts you didn’t know
It’s arguably the most prestigious sporting event in the world, with winning a gold medal topping the list of hopes and dreams of every elite athlete.
The modern Olympic Games’ 120th anniversary has been marked with a Google Doodle, but while the Games themselves are recognised all across the globe, did you know how important a role the UK played in shaping them?
When were the first Olympic Games?
The Ancient Olympic Games were athletic festivals held every four years in Olympia, Greece from around 776BC, where athletes would compete to win wrestling, chariot racing and running races, among many other sports.
While definitive records are few and far between, the rising influence of the Roman Empire is believed to have caused the decline of the formally-organised Games.
It is believed that the Christian emperor Theodosius I legally abolished “pagan” events like the Games, in 393 or 394 A.D.
Wenlock: The birthplace of modern-day Olympics
Centuries later, Wenlock, a Shropshire town 130 miles north of London, played host to the Wenlock Olympian Games, a series of challenges devised by the town’s doctor William Penny Brookes in 1850 annually to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation and by the award of a prize…”. The event continues to be held today.
Frenchman and historian Baron Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, then aged 27, visited the town in 1890 and witnessed the townspeople participating in events as varied as a three-mile bicycle race, tilting at the ring (a kind of jousting) and a one-mile flat race.
Inspired, de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and worked towards the aim of establishing a new form of Olympic Games every four years.
In the meantime, philanthropists Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas had funded the restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium in Greece, where they sponsored the first revived Games in 1859, and two further events were held in 1870 and 1875 respectively.
The first Summer Games were in 1896
Eventually the first Summer Games held under the IOC took place in the Panathinaiko Stadium during 1896, which was partly funded by a trust left by the two cousins to the Greek government.
It consisted of nine sports and 43 events over 10 days, including weightlifting, gymnastics, shotput and the marathon, which was won by Greek athlete Spyridon “Spyro” Louis, who is widely regarded as a hero figure in Greek sporting history.
In the intervening years the Winter Games, Paralympics and Youth Games have been established, with the Summer Games attracting around 10,500 athletes from 204 countries during the 2012 event, held in London.
Both de Coubertin and Dr Brookes are recognised as having played a major role in the definition of the Olympic Games as we know them today.
In 2012 Wenlock town councillor Pat Daffurn told the Telegraph: “Because of William Penny Brookes the founder of the modern Olympics, we feel quite important and involved in the London Olympics. The Olympic Games means a lot of the people of this town but then so too does the Wenlock Games.”
What do the Olympic rings signify?
Coubertin explained his design in 1931: “A white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red…is symbolic; it represents the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time.”
The 1912 Games held in Stockholm were the first to feature athletes from all five inhabited parts of the world.
A design of five interlocked rings, drawn and coloured by hand, appeared as the letterhead on a missive Coubertin sent to a colleague. Coubertin used his ring design as the emblem of the IOC’s 20th anniversary celebration in 1914. A year later, it became the official Olympic symbol.
The rings were supposed to be used on flags and signage at the 1916 Games, but these were cancelled because of the Great War. The rings debuted at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Coubertin used a loose interpretation of “continent” that included Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. He never said nor wrote that any specific ring represents a specific continent.
Because the rings were originally designed as a logo for the IOC’s 20th anniversary and only later became a symbol of the Olympics, it’s also probable that Coubertin originally thought of the rings as symbols of the five Games already successfully staged.
Wenlock was the name of one of the London 2012 mascots
The other was Mandeville – named after the Stoke Mandeville hospital, birthplace of the Paralympics, in Buckinghamshire.
The 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro
The Olympic Games, the first to be held in South America, will be held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro this summer from August 5, 2016 to August 21, 2016.
The program features 28 sports and a total of 306 events. Rugby Sevens and golf are two of the new sports to be added to the bill this year.
Rio has been preparing for the Games since 2009 when they were announced. The downtown area, in particular, has been spruced up, and test events are now in full swing. Airbnb and others have widened the range of accommodation available. Some venues are behind schedule, however.
In March, it was announced that a team of about 10 refugees will compete under the Olympic flag at this year’s Games.
Five fun facts about Athens in 1896
- The 1896 Olympics set the record for the largest international participation in a sporting event.
- It also had the largest audience at a sporting event to date.
- A German wrestler and gymnast called Carl Shuhmann won four titles, making him the most successful athlete at the games.
- Although the next Olympic Games was planned for Paris, the Greek King George and some competitors petitioned to hold it in Greece again.
- The Olympics didn’t return to Athens until 2004.