In The Smithsonian I found a wonderful article about the real origin of the modern Olympiad. It gives new meaning to the phrase “grass-roots” and places in grim historical context the two previous occasions when the games have been held in London. It also places a human face on the event, and gives even a stoic non-athlete like myself something to smile about.
Remember field day at school, and church picnics? Games at summer camp, or Boy Scouts or Girl Guides? I was a Brownie and a Brown Owl, a summer playground “soupie”, an elementary teacher who had to teach my own “phys ed” as well as supervise recess breaks and numerous play days and track and field meets. As Mom I organized summer birthday parties. I like to think that all of this participation with “GAMES”, games in the simplest sense, gives me a link, however tenacious, to the happy tradition that morphed into the bickering, pretentious, and extravagant monster we now call THE Games!
It is of particular historical interest that even from the inaugural Much Wenlock games, cricket and football were included. The Greeks had never tolerated any ball games in the Olympics, and likewise the Romans dismissed such activity as child’s play. Although English monarchs themselves played court tennis, several kings issued decrees banning ball games. The fear was that the yeomen who amused themselves so, monkeying around with balls, would not be dutifully practicing their archery in preparation for fighting for the Crown. Even as the gentry migrated to the New World, it continued to disparage ball games in comparison with the savage butchery of the hunt….
After all, the “lower orders” could hardly be trusted to act upon the field of play in a proper sportsmanlike manner. The original British definition of amateur did not simply mean someone who played at sport without remuneration; rather, it was much broader: An amateur could only be someone who did not labor with his hands….
However, notwithstanding this high-minded purpose, and unlike the sanctimonious claptrap that suffocates the Games today, Penny Brookes also knew how to put a smile on the Olympic face. His annual Much Wenlock games had the breezy ambience of a medieval county fair. The parade to the “Olympian Fields” began, appropriately, at the two taverns in town, accompanied by heralds and bands, with children singing, gaily tossing flower petals. The winners were crowned with laurel wreaths, laid on by the begowned fairest of Much Wenlock’s fair maids. Besides the classic Greek fare, the competitions themselves tended to the eclectic. One year there was a blindfolded wheelbarrow race, another offered “an old woman’s race for a pound of tea” and on yet another occasion there was a pig chase, with the intrepid swine squealing past the town’s limestone cottages until cornered “in the cellar of Mr. Blakeway’s house.”
Yes, the article is a bit long… tear yourself away from the TV screen and its annoying commentaries and even more annoying commercials. Anything really important will be shown again later and discussed ad nauseum, so you won’t miss much by taking a break to read this. The article has lots of little known information to tweak your imagination and enliven the inescapable conversations about the Games.