Ahead of the Games

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


The opening of the 2012 Games had everything you'd expect: the world's media, nervous competitors, expectant crowds, organisers praying for good weather. But don't worry, you haven't missed the London Olympics; this was Britain's other major sporting event this summer.

On June 1, 145 kilometres to the west of the British capital, amid the rolling Gloucestershire countryside, spectators gathered on a hill high above the picturesque village of Chipping Campden for their own Olympics, or, to be more precise, Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpicks.

A modern-day record crowd of 6,500 perched themselves on the banks of the natural amphitheatre, overlooking a small, flat sporting arena, as they have done for the past 400 years, with a few exceptions - in 1642, the English civil war halted the games for 18 years, and politics had a hand in the closure of the site in 1852.

The arena, complete with makeshift castle, hosts traditional country sports such as singlestick, the standing jump, jumping in a sack and tug o' war. Competition among locals for the coveted Champions of the Hill title is fierce and rivalry between teams recruited from the village pubs is intense, with a year's worth of bragging rights at stake.

TO CELEBRATE THE quadricentennial, the gates to the games have been opened five hours early, to allow the public into a replica Jacobean village that has been created for the occasion. Within, storytellers dressed in knee-length breeches, doublets, ruff collars and felt hats relate Jacobean conspiracy theories surrounding the first Queen Elizabeth, and a puppeteer retells the tale of Robin Hood.

A demonstration of backswording catches the eye. Competitors battle one another using wooden cudgels, the intention being to 'break a head': which used to mean raising an inch of blood from an opponent's scalp anywhere above the eye line.

'It's fun,' says Emma Boast, 24, who has been backswording for eight years. 'It was being done when the first Dover's Olimpicks were held, in 1612. In those days, [the cudgel] was as big as a football is today. As they didn't have a standing army, the men had to learn how to handle themselves. This is how they did it.'

These days, protective head gear is a must.

In the shadow of the wooden castle, as the long summer evening begins to set in, the teams who will contest the Games parade around the arena.

A ceremonial party includes the lilac-clad Scuttlebrook Queen, complete with tiara, representing the Scuttlebrook Wake, or fair, which will run the following day in Chipping Campden; Dover (portrayed by a local priest); and his friend from the 17th century Endymion Porter. The latter two are on horseback, dressed in plus fours, doublets and fine hats adorned with extravagant plumes.

Dover proclaims the Games open and, with the sound of traditional cannon fire (in reality, a large firework) ringing in their ears, the competitors ready themselves. Instead of the two-week sporting extravaganza London will witness, though, all these events will be contested in a frenetic two hours.

'There has been stimulation in interest this year,' says Graham Greenall, chairman of the Olimpick Games Committee, explaining the presence of television crews from as far afield as the United States and Mexico. 'We're not sure if the added impetus is from the 400th anniversary or the Olympics; it's probably both.'

Organisers are quick to point out, though, that these Olimpicks helped win London its right to host this year's other Games. The British Olympic Association (BOA) declared in its bid statement: 'An Olympic Games held in London in 2012 will mark a unique anniversary - it will be exactly 400 years from the moment that the first stirrings of Britain's Olympic beginnings can be identified.'

One sport the BOA probably didn't boast of to the International Olympic Committee is the Cotswold Olimpicks' blue-riband event: shin kicking.

'It used to be very brutal,' says Greenall. 'Competitors used to prepare by banging their shins with hammers, and would wear boots with iron-tipped toes.

'Many legs have been broken.'

In the modern era, competitors at least benefit from a cushion of straw in their socks. Competing kickers clasp one another's shoulders and kick their opponent's shins. Overseen by a referee - or stickler - the combatants also attempt to 'underplay' the other's legs, that is to trip them up.

It's believed that Dover, a lawyer who had moved into the area a year earlier, founded the event in an effort to evoke the spirit of the ancient Greek games, their sporting excellence and, in his own words, 'for training of the youth in manly sports and for the harmless mirthe and jollitie of the neighbourhood'. However, their foundation may be a little more prosaic.

'Foreign masons had been brought in to build the estate owner's mansion, and there was tension between the locals and the incomers,' says Greenall. 'There was a pre-existing Whitsun festival, and the original organisers probably thought they could have a sort of friendly competition between them.

'But just in case it got out of hand they moved it to the top of the hill.'

The cover of Annalia Dubrensia, a 1636 collection of poems celebrating the Olimpicks, shows Dover presiding over the event - as he did for 40 years - and includes depictions of dancing, backswording, coursing (hunting with dogs), throwing the sledge hammer, spurning the barre (similar to tossing the caber), tumbling (a form of gymnastics) and shin kicking. The event was backed by King James I and Greenall believes other notables would have enjoyed its sights and sounds.

'There are allusions to Dover's Games in Shakespeare: the wrestling scene in As You Like It, for example, and [the line] 'How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard he say he was outrun at Cotsall,' from The Merry Wives of Windsor,' says Greenall. 'He almost certainly came to the Games.

'[Shakespeare] spent the final four years of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon, [they were also] the first four years of the Games.' Stratford is 19 kilometres from Dover's Hill.

THE FIRST EVENT IS AN obstacle race, wherein competitors, in teams of five, must negotiate cones and rubber tyres. One of each team must complete a section of the event in a wheelbarrow. Once past the barrow stage, team members strap planks to their feet and race in lanes painted onto the grass to the finishing line.

A clear lack of balance and repeated failures to master even the simplest elements of the race suggest one or two of the pub teams have imbibed a little Dutch courage en route to the Games.

Meanwhile, runners - with nothing but water in their bottles, one must assume - set off on an eight-kilometre run that takes in the ruins of Campden House, which was burned to the ground in the 17th century, during the civil war.

The Champion of the Hill event moves on to the more traditional hammer-throwing, shot putting, standing jumps and spurning of the barre. The tug o' war is so hotly contested the rope snaps.

As the light begins to fade, it is the turn of the shin kickers, the 100-metres sprinters of these Games. Not surprisingly, few shin-kicking champions opt to defend their title, and that includes the 2008 shin-kicking world champion, Matthew Proctor.

'I think I'll concentrate on team events again this year,' Proctor says, as he surveys the field of eager young men grabbing handfuls of straw and pulling on traditional shepherd smocks.

Fittingly for an anniversary year, we are treated to a classic bout during the heats. Weighing in at 57kg, Barry Lock from Worcester faces a tough task as Ben Mart, 108kg, strides into the arena.

The spectators are soon rooting for the underdog, cheering every time the diminutive shin-kicker's foot finds its mark. For more than seven minutes, a David-and-Goliath battle is played out in front of the bloodthirsty crowd. In a scene that may have been familiar to the crowd in a Roman coliseum, the surrounding hills echo with an approving roar as an exhausted Mart succumbs to Lock's fleet of foot.

'He deserved to win,' says Mart, pulling straw from his bloodied legs. 'His feet are like lightning, bam, bam, bam.'

Will he return? 'I will be back next year but I'll train for it this time. I'll probably give up smoking,' he says.

As darkness descends, Dover and Porter escort the Scuttlebrook Queen to a beacon constructed as part of Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee celebrations. As the beacon is lit, fireworks signal the end of this year's Games.

As tradition dictates, thousands light Olimpick torches and make their way down the hill into Chipping Campden, for dancing and ale in the village square.

'What we try to provide is tradition,' says Greenall, looking up at the beacon. 'The Games are also linked with that country idea of having fun.

'Our legacy is to carry this on and, in 20 years time, when London 2012 is a mark in the record book, we'll still be here, doing our bit.'