English roots of Olympics

Robert Dover, on horseback, oversees his Olimpicks
Robert Dover, on horseback, oversees his Olimpicks

After the prolonged excitement of the Olympic Torch Relay, the Games themselves are finally about to start.

As is the way of these things, the opening ceremony will be a marathon in itself. But before that, there’s a more modest event that we can all take part in.

At 8.12am on July 27 Martin Creed, an artist and musician, is inviting everyone to join together and ring in the Olympics. You might remember him; he’s the chap who won the Turner prize in 2001 for switching a light on and off.

Thankfully, his latest notion sounds rather more fun. The title says it all, “Work no.1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes.”

Church bell-ringers have promised to take part, though bells of all kinds are welcome. So dig out those old handbells, cow bells, bicycle bells and Christmas bells. Set an alarm on your mobile, or just give the doorbell some welly. This is truly art for all, and it’s the closest most of us will get to the Olympics.

Find out more and download a free ringtone at: www.allthebells.com

English roots

Before Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in 1896, there were several sporting events in England that kept the spirit of the classical games alive.

One was the Wenlock Olympian Games in Shropshire, a mix of athletics and sports such as football, cricket and quoits. It was held for the first time in 1850, and the man behind it was Dr Penny Brookes.

Dr Brookes had a dream: an International Olympian Festival, to be held in Athens. In 1890, the doctor, then aged 81, invited young Baron Pierre de Coubertin to Shropshire and staged a special meeting of the Wenlock Games in his honour.

The two men became friends and the rest, as they say, is history. Sadly, Dr Brookes died four months before the first International Olympic Games, and so never saw his dream become reality.

Olimpick dawn

Two years after the first Wenlock Games, an event that had inspired them came to an end after 240 years.

The yearly Whitsuntide sports at Chipping Camden had been no different from any other until 1612, when Robert Dover gave them a dramatic makeover.

Forget starting pistols — cannon were fired to start races at his Cotswold Games. And all the events took place in front of a marvellous backdrop, a fabricated “castle” built to house the cannon.

Silver trophies and yellow favours were awarded for leaping, wrestling, swordplay, pike drill, throwing the sledgehammer, spurning the barre, and that old favourite, shin-kicking. Later innovations included a women’s race, in which “healthy young wenches” competed for a Holland smock.

Today we have the Cultural Olympiad to complement the sport, but Robert Dover had thought of that too. Chess matches were staged in tents, and spectators enjoyed the arts of poetry, 
piping, singing, and dancing.

Dover’s Olimpicks, as they were called, drew people from miles around.

The games ended in 1852 when the site was enclosed, but today Dover’s Hill belongs to the National Trust and the historic games have been revived.

Coincidentally, London 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of Robert Dover’s first Olimpicks.