Seventeenth Century Olympic Games

March 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The 2012 Games are certain to uncover some unlikely heroes, but one name being put forward may surprise everyone. He was an organiser rather than an athlete, a showman rather than a performer and a social climber, not a down-to-earth champion. And he died in the middle of the 17th century.

This British Olympic hero is Robert Dover, founder of the “Olympick Games” of 1612, a dramatic sporting festival held on Kingcombe Plain, a mile from Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds.

Dover is the merest footnote in Olympic history. The man trying to change that is none other than Peter Radford — a former world recordholder and 100 metres bronze medal-winner at the Rome Olympics of 1960. Radford wants Dover’s name and influence restored to their proper glory; he wants Dover to take a long-overdue bow from the podium.

“We hear plenty about the 1850 Games at Much Wenlock as the forerunner of the modern Olympics,” Radford said. “But not nearly enough about the Games that ran from 1612 onwards in the Cotswolds.” It’s time to get our history straight, according to Radford.

Neither Dover nor the 1612 “Cotswold Olympicks” gets much of a mention in the standard story. Wikipedia’s narrative — a useful barometer of conventional wisdom — goes silent after the final classical Games of 393AD, before picking up the story again in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The focus is Much Wenlock, the Shropshire town where Dr William Penny Brookes hosted a revival of the Olympics in 1850 (one of the mascots of this year’s Games is called Wenlock). In 1889, Brookes met and corresponded with the French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement. Coubertin visited Much Wenlock in 1890, wrote glowingly about it when he returned to France, then founded the International Olympic Committee. In 1896, of course, Athens hosted the first Olympics organised by the IOC.

All true enough, but it leaves out rather too much of the intervening history. The label Olympic Games was well-known in 18th-century Britain and according to Radford we should think of Olympic history as one of continuity rather than a miraculous rebirth after a Dark Age that lasted 1,500 years.

I went for a walk with Radford on Kingcombe Plain — now called Dover’s Hill — as the former sprinter described what the spectators would have watched in the 17th century. To our right, the wrestlers fought and long jumpers leapt; to our left, dogs competed at hare coursing and pike-men jousted. The crowd — the rich sitting in tented luxury, the poor outside on the grassy slopes — cheered on from the banks of the hill behind us.

Radford, right, is still in magnificent shape. Running the 100 metres in 10.29sec may be beyond him these days, but he skipped down the hill on to the playing field of Kingcombe Plain with considerably more grace and speed than could be managed by the former cricketer alongside him. In fact, the recording of our conversation is interrupted by a loud thud as I slipped over in an undignified heap. I scrambled up to find Radford bouncing on his toes, as though another rival had baled out just before the starting gun.

Radford talks about the imprint left by Robert Dover. “He had a gift for how to put on a show, a sense of celebration,” he said. It is a perfect spot, a natural amphitheatre encircled by trees behind, and facing a dramatic view of the Vale of Evesham.

Dover himself was not the retiring kind of sporting entrepreneur. TheAnnalia Dubrensia, a book of poems about the Cotswold Games published in 1636, has a woodcut showing Dover on horseback at the heart of the action.

Radford delights in the man’s confidence: “In regal clothes, with a rod of office, and carrying a bag of what looks like money in his right hand — it is all reminiscent of the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome,” he said. It is no accident that Dover looked regal: a friend at Court had arranged for him to be given clothes once worn by King James I. We should think of Dover as the forebear of Lalit Modi and Don King — only with better royal connections.

The Annalia Dubrensia, which celebrates Dover’s achievements, is not just a cobbled-together collection of verses by friends and sycophants. There are entries by Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, two of the 17th century’s pre-eminent poets.

Nor were the Games a passing fad. According to Radford’s research, they were held from 1612 (with a break from 1622 to 1625) until 1643. They were started again by Robert Dover’s son around 1660, continuing throughout the 18th and early 19th century until 1852. Radford calculates the Games were held 221 times over 239 years.

The Games were suspended from 1643 to 1660, during the Civil War and the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. The Puritans hated sport, of course, and Dover’s Games — competitive and ostentatious — represented everything they mistrusted.

Ironically, by banning sport, the Puritans succeeded only in confirming the law of unintended consequences. When sport was reintroduced into national life with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the English seized upon the chance to have fun again. Having once been deprived of sport, they became obsessed by it.

There will always be critics and cynics trying to undermine sporting festivals as vulgar and misguided. That is as true in 2012 as it was in the 17th century. We should remember the argument presented by Robert Dover: that sport taps into the essential human yearning to compete, to show off and to have fun.

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