With the site for the 2012 London Olympics sitting squarely in East London, Tony Robinson’s London Games Unearthed sees him embark on a quest of discovery, interweaving the history of his family and their hometown with the extraordinary 3000-year-old story of the Olympic Games. At times, the two histories could not be more different but in the 19th century, they dramatically converge.
For hundreds of years, Tony Robinson’s family has lived near the muddy River Lea that winds its way through the industrial communities of East London. From a thriving Roman agricultural market town to a centre for medieval monk-operated mills; from a 19th century industrial powerhouse, to a decaying suburban landscape, this area has undergone many dramatic transformations – but none greater than its latest metamorphosis into the sparkling and sustainable home of the 2012 Olympic Games.
The original Games, after surviving for over a millennium in ancient Greece, came to an abrupt end when in 393 AD the Christian emperor of Rome banned all pagan cults and put a stop to the fun – and it would be 1500 years before they were resurrected.
Fast forward to the 1800s and the small town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, where a local doctor, Dr William Penny Brookes, was concerned the riches of the industrial revolution were coming at the cost of the body and soul of the working classes, including those in the East End.
His solution to this was to encourage outdoor recreation, which would eventually lead to the resurrection of one of the greatest human events of all time – the Olympic Games. In 1850, Brookes succeeded in creating the inaugural Wenlock Olympian Games. They were the first organized games ever to be held for working class people.
Brookes’ vision was to expand the Games across the world. In 1890, a young French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin – who was in need of a cause and decided to devote himself to introducing the British model of physical education into French schools – found his true calling in life at Dr Brookes’ Olympian Games in Much Wenlock. Just six years after this meeting, de Coubertin succeeded in bringing about the first modern International Olympic Games in Athens, in 1896.
In July, the world will come together in celebration of the resilience and spirit of both a city and a movement to create another magical chapter in Olympic history. A magic that may never have existed, were it not for a humble country doctor in England.
Tuesday, June 19 at 7.30pm on History.