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 called Robert Dover.
Dover’s Olimpick Games
Robert Dover was a Norfolk lawyer, a keen amateur poet, and by all accounts an all-round good egg. 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 centuries old even in his time. Rural communities had long held their own games on feast 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 seems to have blended this tradition with another, in which wealthy gentry would put on Greek themed music festivals, to invent a new kind of sporting spectacle.
The result, in around 1612 (the experts don’t agree on the precise start date), 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 English Civil War, and Dover’s Olimpicks were forced to halt. And just ten years later, Robert Dover himself died.
However, this wasn’t the end of the Cotswold Olimpicks. After the Restoration the mood changed again, and the Games were revived, running for over two hundred years from 1660. Reports suggest that though still drawing huge crowds, by the mid-nineteenth century the Games had degenerated into a wild revel frequented by hooligans, drunks and ‘women off 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.
Fast forward another hundred years to 1951, and the Olimpicks were revived again. Since 1965 they have become an almost unbroken annual fixture.
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 Cotswold Olimpicks, now renamed Dover’s Hill in honour of the great man. The modern Games 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 plenty of drink.
I’m sure Dover would have approved!