We all know – or think we know – the story of the Olympics’ two incarnations. First there were the ancient Greeks competing in honour of the gods at Olympia, then, after a hiatus of 1,500 years, the Games were reborn in their modern form, the brainchild of French Baron, Pierre de Coubertin.
But de Coubertin wasn’t the first person with dreams of rekindling the Olympic flame. In fact he was beaten to it by almost three hundred years by an Englishman, Robert Dover.
Dover’s Olimpick Games
Robert Dover was a Norfolk lawyer, an excellent amateur poet, and by all accounts a thoroughly decent bloke. In the early 1600s he moved to the small Gloucestershire village of Saintbury, where he fell in with Endymion Porter, a wealthy landowner with royal connections. Porter was a big fan of country sports, and his enthusiasm may have rubbed off on Dover, for within a short time of arriving in his new home Dover was already planning a spectacular new sports event to take place in the hills above the village.
Dover’s Games drew on a tradition of village sports that was already centuries old by his time. Rural communities across the land held local games on feat and festival days, offering hard-pressed workers a chance to blow off steam and perhaps win a modest prize – perhaps an item of clothing or cut of meat. Dover though seems to have blended this tradition with another, in which wealthy gentry would put on Greek themed pastoral music festivals, to devise a new kind of sporting spectacle.
The result, in about 1612, was the inauguration of a hugely popular annual Games, featuring a range of sports including running races, jumping contests, hare coursing, wrestling and (wooden) sword fighting. Competitors and spectators travelled from miles around to take part, some coming from as far away as London. Unusually, the Cotswold Olimpicks, as they came to be known, attracted people from across the social spectrum. Even Prince Rupert put in an appearance in 1636.
Part of Dover’s motivation for creating the Games may have been to counter the growing influence of Puritanism, which sought to curb village games and revels. This would explain why royals were keen to show their support. The Games offered a rare chance for aristocrats and agricultural workers to show solidarity in the face of the largely middle-class Puritan movement.
A Story of Survival
Tensions between the Puritans and Royalists finally boiled over in 1642 with the outbreak of the Civil War, and Dover’s Olimpicks were forced to halt. Ten years later Robert Dover died. However, after the Restoration the mood changed again, and the Olimpicks were revived, running from 1660 right up to the 1850s. Reports suggest that though still drawing huge crowds, by this time the Games had degenerated into a wild revel frequented by hooligans, drunks and ‘women of loose morals’. In 1852 consent for the enclosure of the common land on which the Games took place was granted to local landowners, and they were again forced to cease.
A hundred years later though, in 1951, the Olimpicks were revived again, becoming an almost unbroken annual fixture since 1965. Today they are in good health once more, featuring running races for children and adults, hammer throwing, shot putting, tug-o-war and, for the mildly deranged, a shin kicking contest. They still take place on the site of the original Games, now renamed Dover’s Hill, and end with a firelight procession back to the village square in Chipping Campden, where competitors and spectators enjoy an ‘after party’ with live music, food and drink. I’m sure Dover would have approved!
This article was originally published in Running magazine, January 2016. www.runnersradar.com