The Much Wenlock Olympian Games were one of the various attempts at revival of the Ancient Olympic Games which preceded Pierre de Coubertin’s successful attempt. Much Wenlock is a small town in Shropshire, England, 12 miles south of Shrewsbury and 40 miles west of Birmingham. On 22 October 1850, these Games were held for the first time. They were the brainchild of British sports enthusiast, Dr. William Penny Brookes (1809-1895).
The Games were only national in nature and the events were those of a British medieval country fair enriched by modern athletic sports disciplines. The original events in 1850 consisted of cricket, 14-a-side football, high and long jumping, quoits, a hopping race, and a running race. However, several athletic events were added in the next few editions. But, in 1855, a popular event was the blindfolded wheelbarrow race, and in 1858 a pig race was contested in which the pig “led its pursuers over hedge and ditch right into the town where it took ground in the cellar of Mr. Blakeways house; and where it was captured by a man called William Hill.” The most popular event became tilting-at-the-ring, which was first held in 1858. The competitors, compulsorily dressed in medieval costume, rode down a straight course and used their lances to spear a small ring, suspended from a bar over the course. The Much Wenlock Olympian Games, altogether 45 in number up to 1895, achieved their high point in the 1860s and 1870s. In those years, representatives of the German Gymnastic Society (which was based in London) competed regularly. In 1859, Brookes contacted the Greeks and donated a £10 prize to the Zappas Olympic Games. The winner of the long footrace at the 1859 Zappas Olympics, Petros Velissariou, was made an honorary member of the Much Wenlock Olympian Society.
In 1860, 1861, 1862, and 1864, Brookes also organized the Shropshire Olympian Games on a regional level in, respectively, Much Wenlock, Wellington, Much Wenlock, and Shrewsbury. These were followed by the Games organized by the National Olympic Association: 1866 (London), 1867 (Birmingham), 1868 (Wellington), 1874 (Much Wenlock), 1877 (Shrewsbury), and 1883 (Hadley). The Much Wenlock Olympian Games were held more sporadically after Brookes’ death in 1895, but they are actually still held today, sponsored by the Much Wenlock Olympian Society, which celebrated the 100th Much Wenlock Olympian Games in 1986. The Much Wenlock Olympian Games are important in the history of Olympic revivals because of their influence on Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin knew of Brookes’ efforts and visited the Much Wenlock Olympian Games as a guest of honor in October 1890. In 1891, he donated a gold medal that was given to the winner of tilting-at-the-ring. However, as early as 1881, William Penny Brookes was the first person ever to propose that an International Olympic Festival be staged in Athens.