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Forgotten men of modern Olympic

Published : Jul 8, 2016, 2:09 am IST
Updated : Jul 8, 2016, 2:09 am IST

In popular perception, Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympic Games.

In popular perception, Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympic Games. The Frenchman indeed played a key role in reviving the ancient Greek event in 1896 but he wasn’t the only person who worked towards the goal. English doctor William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) and Greek business tycoon Evangelos Zappas (1800-1865) were as crucial to the rebirth of the Olympics as de Coubertin.

A botanist, linguist, social worker and philanthropist, Brookes was also passionate about sports. He gave his heart and soul to revive the Olympics at their ancient birthplace, Greece. Nobody worked with greater zeal in the 19th century than Brookes to give life to an event that had been dead since AD 393. The amiable physician was a man of action as he conducted the Wenlock Olympian games at Much Wenlock, a small town in Shropshire county near England’s western border with Wales, from 1850. Competitions were held in athletics, cricket and football.

Brookesallowed working class people to take part in his games. In Victorian England, the egalitarian idea was frowned upon because the upper crust of the society wanted sports to be its exclusive preserve. Brookes also founded Shropshire Olympian games in 1861 and National Olympian Association games for the whole of England in 1866. He faced resistance from elitists who sought the exclusion of mechanics, artisans and labourers from any sporting event. But Brookes didn’t budge.

Brookes, who wrote a stream of letters to the Greek authorities to revive the Olympic Games, hosted a special edition of the Wenlock Olympian games for Coubertin when the Frenchman called on him in 1890. After the visit, Coubertin wrote that “the Wenlock people alone have preserved and followed the true Olympic traditions.” But he would be less generous to share any credit for the revival of the Olympic Games with Brookes later on. The Englishman was delighted with the efforts of Coubertin to conduct the Olympics again. He was made an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee, which was formed in 1894. Unfortunately, though, Brookes died in 1895 three months before the first modern Olympic Games at Athens.

The annual Wenlock Olympian games are conducted even today in the second week of July. The British Olympic Association named a mascot for the 2012 London Games “Wenlock” to honour the small town.