MUCH WENLOCK, England, July 13 — A medieval town in rural England is revelling in the Olympics as a long-forgotten story about how this remote community inspired the modern Games receives global recognition — and could possibly put Much Wenlock on the tourist map.
Although Athens is usually cited as the birthplace of the modern Games, that honour lies with Much Wenlock, a picture-perfect 700-year-old English town in the county of Shropshire that boasts winding streets, traditional white-and-black timber beamed houses, limestone cottages and even an Abbey ruin.
The link dates back to William Penny Brookes, a doctor in the town 200 km northwest of London, who believed in the benefits of physical exercise for “every grade of man”.
In 1850, before the game of lawn tennis was invented or athletics introduced at Oxford and Cambridge universities, Brookes set up the annual Wenlock Olympian Games featuring football, running and hopping.
This innovative multi-sports event, featuring men of all classes, expanded nationally with the first National Olympian Games held in London in 1866 with more to follow before a rival group took the idea to London and the event returned to Wenlock.
Brookes made his mark on history in 1890 when French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, visited Much Wenlock to discuss the doctor’s ethos of fair play in sport and the need to be healthy in body and mind.
His influence on de Coubertin inspired the revival of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 with the London Olympic organisers, LOCOG, acknowledging Brookes’ important role by naming the official 2012 Olympics mascot Wenlock.
“It is surprising really that few people in Britain were aware of this link. It really had become a forgotten story,” said Tim King, Tourism Officer for Shropshire Council, as the 126th Wenlock Olympian Games got underway this week.
“This is a one-off year for Much Wenlock. It is time to promote this story and attract more tourists. Tourism is vital here because there are no large industries.”
With four tea shops, a local butcher, a hardware store and a population of 2,600, Much Wenlock has retained the charm of a traditional English village with no supermarkets or major retailers allowed into its high street.
But like many small towns in rural England, it needs to increase tourism to bolster local businesses and stop people moving to larger urban centres to find work.
Tourism is vital to preserve economic activity in rural areas, accounting for about 10 percent of business in 2009/2010 which is little changed in the past decade, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Figures from VisitEngland, the national tourist board, showed day trips and overnight stays by Britons within the UK are a major contributor to the £97 billion (RM478 billion) generated by tourism each year and it is this market that Much Wenlock is targeting.