When Birmingham Staged the Olympic Games

We ran this last November but as the Olympic Flame is traversing the city today we think it deserves another outing:

In an abridged extract from Martin Polley’s new book The British Olympics – Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612-2012, we explain how, in June 1867, Edgbaston hosted Britain’s second National Olympic Games.

“By the 1860s, although its population was rapidly approaching the magnitude of Liverpool and Manchester, in sporting terms Birmingham had yet to make its mark. Nevertheless, it offered the recently formed National Olympic Association (NOA) fertile ground for the staging of its second Games. The appeal was obvious; Birmingham was accessible by rail from London, Liverpool, Manchester and Much Wenlock in Shropshire, home of William Penny Brookes’ (the originator of the Wenlock Olympian Games). Birmingham athletes had often competed at Much Wenlock, while Clement Davies, Honorary Secretary of the Birmingham Athletic Institute (founded in 1866), was a member of the NOA’s committee.

But there was a cloud on the horizon. As the debate intensified over how amateurism should be defined, more athletes opted to toe the Amateur Athletic Club’s line and not risk entering the NOA’s 1867 Games.

The Games took place over three days, from Tuesday June 25th to Thursday June 27th. On the opening day, proceedings began in true Wenlock style with the athletes, accompanied by the band of the Warwickshire Rifle Corps, processing to the Birmingham Athletic Club’s headquarters at Portland Road. Compared with Crystal Palace Park (where part of the inaugural NOA Games had been staged the previous year), Birmingham’s Festival Grounds, as they were called, were hardly developed and lay in the less leafy parts of Edgbaston, close to a prison and a workhouse (the site is now occupied by George Dixon School).

The Wenlock influence continued with tilting at the ring, a favourite of Brookes, making its national Olympian debut. In a repeat of the first NOA games, there was also a ‘General Competition’, in effect a pentathlon, involving events for jumping, throwing, running and climbing.

Some of the entrants’ names were familiar from the London Games, such as Hugo Landsberger from the German Gymnasium. As well as London, competitors came from Birmingham, Gloucester, Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Newcastle and, despite the Amateur Athletic Club’s warnings, from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

For boys aged under 16 there were races ranging from a 50-yard sack race to a half-mile run, and competitions for throwing and leaping. In the evening, the Games moved to the town centre, with Birmingham Town Hall providing a suitably classical setting for the gymnastic competition.

On Wednesday, Portland Road hosted the remainder of the athletics programme, plus wrestling. Then it was back to the Town Hall in the evening for the fencing, boxing, broadsword and sabre v. bayonet competitions.

The final day saw the swimming competition. Unlike the 1866 Games, where the swimmers had braved the River Thames, the 1867 event was held indoors, also in the town centre, at Kent Street Baths. The final contest was a cricket match, held at Portland Road.

To conclude matters, in the evening the Town Hall hosted the prize-giving and ‘Olympian Ball’, complete with speeches by Brookes and Ernst Ravenstein (of the German Gymnastic Society and London Swimming Club) on the now familiar themes of physical education and the benefits of Olympianism to the nation. In truth, the Birmingham Games had not attracted the finest athletes, nor had the tilting at the ring competition helped to give the impression of a forward-looking organisation.

There then followed a major blow in 1868 when the NOA failed to persuade any club or organisation in the city of Manchester to act as host of the third Games. This was despite the city’s strong athletic culture, and the fact that many a Mancunian athlete had participated in both previous NOA Games.

The above extracts were abridged and reproduced with kind permission of Played in Britain. The British Olympics – Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612-2012 by Martin Polley (English Heritage , 2011) is available for £17.99p from bookshops or via the Played in Britain website: www.playedinbritain.co.uk