Mark Mason

Much Wenlock

There were two mascots for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. One was called Mandeville, obviously because Stoke Mandeville’s games are seen as the precursor to the Paralympics. But why Wenlock? Ever been to Much Wenlock? You should go: not only is the Shropshire town a delightful place in itself, it was also the birthplace of the modern Olympics.

Surely not, you say. Surely the International Olympic Committee was inspired by ancient Greece? Well in a more distant sense, perhaps. But the immediate catalyst was Much Wenlock’s Olympian Games, which had been happening since 1850. William Penny Brookes was the town’s doctor, and seeing the damage local men were doing to themselves by spending all their spare time in the pub, he founded the games. They would, he hoped, encourage a healthier way of living. A Mrs Gaskell (not that one) objected that providing recreation for ‘the working classes’ would make them lazy, but thankfully Brookes ignored her. The first games were held at Much Wenlock’s racecourse.

Athletics, football and cricket featured, but so did the Gimcrack Race, which saw horse riders stop at several points to put on a pair of boots, have a drink and smoke a cigar. There was also a blindfold wheelbarrow race and a Balaclava Mêlée (named after the battle), in which men on horseback had to knock the plumes off opponents’ helmets. Women weren’t allowed to take part in any of this. They had their own events instead. Choral singing, for instance. And knitting.

There were some precedents. The Cotswold Olimpicks had started at Chipping Campden in 1612. (Contestants used coal hammers to harden their legs for the shin-kicking competition.)

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