The village Olympics

Archer Alison Williamson, who will take part in her fifth Olympics at Beijing, took bronze in Athens

A thousand people have travelled to Shropshire to take part in the 14 different sports at the Wenlock Olympian Games, which take place from 11-14 July. The event may seem quaint, but the Olympic movement owes the pretty town of Much Wenlock a great debt.

The movement's founder, the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired by the values of ancient Greece - or so we shall be told when television covers the opening ceremony from Beijing next month. But there is more to Olympic history than that, and Much Wenlock and its Victorian doctor played a central part in it.

William Penny Brookes was born here in 1809, returning as a young man to take over his father's medical practice. One of his good works was the Wenlock Olympian Society, which held its first Games in 1850 "to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants". The games were held annually, attracting competitors from as far as Liverpool and London.

Brookes soon burst the confines of Much Wenlock, forming the Shropshire Olympian Games and then the National Olympian Association. The latter's first Festival, a three-day event held at Crystal Palace in 1866, attracted 10,000 spectators and competitors. An 18-year-old W G Grace won the 440 yards hurdles.

When de Coubertin visited England, Brookes invited him to the 1890 Wenlock Games. There the 81-year-old doctor and 27-year-old baron shared their dream of a revived international Olympics in Athens. Brookes died in 1895, a year before it was realised, but his influence was obvious. In particular, de Coubertin adopted the model of the Shropshire Olympian Games, where towns took turns to play host and bear the costs. Londoners may wonder whether this was such a good idea.

De Coubertin was motivated not solely by admiration for the ancient world. He attributed his country's defeat by Prussia in 1870 to a national malaise and saw sport as its cure. Brookes shared some of these concerns - he was a determined campaigner for physical education in schools - but the Wenlock Games had a foot in Merrie England, too.

Chris Cannon, of the Wenlock Olympian Society, explains: "The Games were a mixture of athletics and traditional sports like quoits, football and cricket. Fun events - a blindfold wheelbarrow race, an old women's race for a pound of tea - were included to entertain the crowds, and the medieval tilting proved most popular of all. From the beginning, the games were open to what Brookes called 'every grade of man'."

Seeing the National Olympian Association set this democratic spirit loose on a national scale made some people anxious. Part of the reaction was the founding of the Amateur Athletic Club (later the AAA), one of whose chief concerns was policing the sport so that it was in effect restricted to the products of the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge.

The result may well have been a fall in standards. Research by Professor Peter Radford, a former British sprint champion, suggests the professional athletes of the 18th century were better than the amateurs of the 19th. There is even evidence that a four-minute mile was run in 1770.

Despite this opposition, the Wenlock Games continued annually after Brookes's death and their links with the modern Olympics persist. The Shropshire archer Alison Williamson, who will take part in her fifth Olympics at Beijing, took bronze in Athens four years ago. But she won her first medal at the age of ten - a silver from the 1981 Wenlock Olympian Games.

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’