When the mascots for the Olympics (Wenlock) and Paralymics (Mandeville, above) were announced, the response was somewhat cool, if not downright negative. And while we may eventually warm to the one-eyed cousins of Gumby, what they may also do is be a reminder of the important role England has played in the creation of the Modern Olympics and the Paralympics.
At an exhibition at the British Museum, visitors are reminded that Pierre de Coubertin, who is often credited with the founding of the modern Olympics in 1896, was greatly influenced by the “Olympian Games” that had been run in the town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, since 1850.
Dr William Penny Brookes began the Olympian Association to aid the health of the local working class. This was part of an overall strategy that included cultural and educational opportunities.
The object of the society was “to promote the moral, intellectual, and physical improvement of the people by the encouragement of out-door recreation, and the distribution of prizes annually for literary and fine-art attainments, and for skills and strength in athletic exercises”.
It wasn’t until 1890 that de Coubertin became aware of the work of Brookes and Wenlock’s Olympian Association when he visited the games. This visit ultimately influenced the creation of the International Olympic Committee by de Coubertin in 1894.
The origins of the Paralympics (“para” as in alongside) date back to the opening day of the London 1948 Olympics. Dr Ludwig Guttman, at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Buckinghamshire, introduced the Wheelchair Games as part of the therapy for World War II veterans who had spinal injuries.
This was repeated in 1952 when Dutch athletes joined the competition, with the first official Paralympics games being held in Rome in 1960.
Are there legacies of Wenlock and Mandeville? Yes: they’re a proud reminder of England’s role in the development of these major sporting, cultural, tourism and economic events.