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In three days time the long-awaited London Olympics will begin, with what may well prove to be an astonishing £27 million pound opening extravaganza, masterminded by Oscar winning film director, Danny Boyle. Boyle's film work is eclectic, to say the least, ranging from the uplifting and joyful ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the harrowing ‘Shallow Grave’, the groundbreaking ‘Trainspotting’ and more recently, the acclaimed ’127 Hours’. Northerner Boyle, from Radcliffe near Manchester, brings an assertive, hands-on approach to his Olympic task, apparently inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, although the actual format of the opening ceremony is shrouded in secrecy, you can be assured of something very special indeed.
With all the negativity over recent weeks about Olympic security, transport delays and the enormous cost of the games, I think we should remember what happened 10 years ago in Manchester, when that city hosted the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Waves of apathy and sarcasm preceded this event, to the extent that pretty well everyone expected it to be the most enormous flop. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, as even the weather seemed to join forces with a proud city to make it a spectacular success.
But two really surprising things came out of these games; the first was the tangible regional pride the north-west of England gained; a feeling that was sustained for several years thereafter. It was as if the region had recovered from a long illness, with hugely restored vigour and a pride which pervaded, not just sports, but almost every aspect of regional regeneration.
We have all heard the hackneyed term ‘legacy’ as it applies to what’s left in usable facilities after the games finish, but in Manchester’s case, amongst many world class sporting venues remaining after the games, Sportcity (The Etihad Stadium), The Velodrome and the Manchester Swimming Pool Complex are now among the jewels of the largest concentration of sporting venues anywhere in Europe; all only two miles from the city centre. More importantly these facilities have since radically improved, not just the region’s, but actually the country’s successes in so many sporting disciplines, especially cycling (Chris Hoy, Chris Boardman, Mark Cavendish and of course Bradley Wiggins, who has just won the Tour de France; all of whom train at Manchester Velodrome and in the Peak District hills around us at Country Attire). This also gave the city a fabulous location for major cultural events, and has become the home of Manchester City Football Club; the 2012 premier league winners, who reputedly contribute £4 million a year leasing the venue from the city. Not bad for what many thought would be an expensive ‘white elephant’.
The second surprise legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games could well be encapsulated in that whispered phrase from the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’; “If you build it, they will come". And come they did, as suddenly the North West, and indeed the UK as a whole, began to produce world-class champions who now had the superlative facilities our global competitors took for granted. These Manchester venues were fundamental in the upsurge of UK sports success, but were hugely aided by Lottery funding for athletes and sportspersons who benefitted for the first time from adequate financial support to allow them to hone their talents to Olympic standards and compete on level terms. Cleverly, the legacy to the UK from the London Olympics has been deliberately designed in a way that will assure them as national resources for decades.
The UK is expected to do rather well in the medal tables – and so they should, but it’s interesting and surprising to note that in the mid 19th century it was an English initiative which resurrected the Olympic Games, 2,600 years since the ancient Greeks first organised the sports. A little known English doctor called William Penny Brookes, from the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, actually started the modern Olympics. His first games, held in October 1850, were a mixture of athletics and traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. These early Games were true sporting events, but sometimes included fun events such as a wheelbarrow race, and my favourite, an old woman's race for a pound of tea!
In 1889 Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education, appealed for information through the English newspapers and Penny Brookes responded. The Baron was so impressed that, at the old doctor's invitation, he visited Much Wenlock in October 1890, and a meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Games was arranged in his honour. At this time the two men discussed their similar ambitions and Penny Brookes, then aged 81, shared with the 27 year old de Coubertin, his dream of an Olympic revival; an international Olympic Games to be staged in Athens. On his return to France, de Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in Much Wenlock and referred to his host's efforts to revive the Olympics in his article for the December issue of 'La Revue Athletique':
"If the Olympic Games, that modern Greece has not yet been able to revive, still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes".
Their respect was mutual, de Coubertin referred to the doctor as "my oldest friend". Although Penny Brookes was listed as an honorary member of the 1894 Congress, he was unable to attend because of ill health. Regrettably the old doctor died just four months before the realisation of his lifelong ambition to launch the first International Olympic Games, which were held in Athens in 1896, and he sadly never saw his dream come to fruition. However, the Much Wenlock Olympian Games continue to thrive to this day – check them out here.
So this Friday, July 27th at 21.00 London time, I hope that, wherever you are in the world, you will be glued to your TV, as the best television coverage you've ever seen will be broadcast by the BBC to an estimated audience of 6 billion people across the globe! And, I’ll stick my neck out and say, you’re going to witness the most iconic and inspiring opening ceremony, to be followed by two weeks of games that will set the benchmark for every games which follow! – It’ll be THAT good….. Promise!