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Father of today’s Olympics

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William Penny BrookesNext Thursday, 13 August 2009, is the bicentenary of the birth of William Penny Brookes, the founding father of the modern Olympic Games.

Brookes was a physician, magistrate and social reformer whose annual “olympian games” in his home town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, inspired the foundation of the International Olympic Committee.

William Penny Brookes was born in 1809 in Much Wenlock, where his father was a local doctor. He studied medicine in London then travelled to Italy to study at Padua, famous for its medieval herb garden.

During further studies in Paris, his father died and Brookes returned to Much Wenlock to take over his father’s practice.

Brookes was appointed a JP in 1841 and remained an active magistrate for nearly 40 years. It is likely that his dealings with cases of petty crime, drunkenness and theft triggered his passion for social reform. He understood the importance of structured physical exercise and education for the working classes, allowing them to take part in what had previously been the preserve of the upper classes.

Also in 1841, Brookes founded the Agricultural Reading Society, an early lending library “for the promotion and diffusion of useful information” from which evolved various lecture classes, including art, music, botany and later, the Wenlock Olympian Class. Like his sporting competitions, the library and its lectures were open to “every grade of man”.

The first meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Class was held in 1850, with sports including athletics, football, quoits and cricket. These early games sometimes included a fun event, such as a wheelbarrow race or an old woman’s race for a pound of tea. The event, which is still held every July, expanded to attract competitors from as far as London and Liverpool.

In 1865 Brookes helped establish the National Olympic Association, which organised the first national games the following year at Crystal Palace. This attracted over 10,000 spectators, and competitors included W. G. Grace.

In response to the games, the Amateur Athletic Club, later to become the Amateur Athletics Association, was formed by an elite who were determined that British sport should be restricted to “amateurs and gentlemen”, that is, athletes from public schools and Oxbridge Universities. The NOA faced powerful opposition but, by its very existence, forced the AAA to open its doors to “every grade of man”.

Brookes invited Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education, to watch a meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1890. The Baron was impressed by the event, which influenced his own efforts to establish a modern international games.

Brookes died four months before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, but much of what took place then was based on his ideas.

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