Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Forget the Greeks, British ideals undergird the modern Olympics

From rowing to fencing to equestrian to sailing, the London Games represent a return to many sports' roots. More broadly, the Olympic ideal is founded on ideas that emerged in England nearly two centuries ago.  

By Staff writer / August 1, 2012

A huge crowd watches British rowers compete to earn bronze in the men's rowing eight in Dorney, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics Wednesday.

Alexander Hassenstein/AP


Dorney, England

At Eton Dorney, there is no controversy about empty seats at Olympic venues. Here, the stands are not nearly big enough, and the overflow crowd spills a third of a mile down the course – bare-chested men made canvases for the Union Jack and picnickers lounging contentedly on the wide sweep of grass, sipping plastic flutes of champagne. 

Skip to next paragraph

This is rowing, and this is Britain. So this is a carnival.

Every morning, American pairs rower Silas Stafford gets goosebumps getting off the bus. The stands are packed and the crowd is buzzing well before the racing even starts.

“You’ll never see stands like this at any other [rowing] event anywhere,” he says.

Eight years ago, Athens said the Olympic Games came home. But until the Olympics reintroduce chariot racing, Britain might have a stronger claim to the slogan. While the Winter Olympics emerged from the sporting festivals and traditions of turn-of-the-century Scandinavia, the Summer Olympics – and the Olympic movement that spawned them – truly trace their origins to England.

For many sports – rowing, fencing, equestrian, sailing, tennis, and soccer, to name a handful – the London Olympics mark a return to their roots. But more deeply, the core Olympic ideals of fair play, moral character, and sport’s capacity to make better men were first cultivated in the English boarding schools and universities of the 19th century.

“In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said at the opening ceremony. “This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified into clear rules and regulations. It was here that sport was included as an educational tool in the school curriculum.”

Yet Britain is home, too, of some of the anachronisms of the Olympic movement, critics add. It was the British notion of “amateurism” – defined specifically to exclude the working class – that defined the Olympics for more than 80 years, before it dissolved amid its own contradictions. But that ingrained sense of classism within the IOC remains, some say, making it a cabal of barons and “his royal highnesses” that is, in effect, a shadow government answerable to no one.

For the most part, though, the historical resonances here have all been positive. When the toll of Big Ben rolls over bikinied beach volleyballers playing in the prime minister’s backyard and American star Carli Lloyd can cherish the hope of playing for a gold medal at perhaps the most hallowed soccer ground in the world, the theater that is the Olympics has found an even grander stage.

Surely Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, would approve.

It was a visit to England’s Rugby School, where physical education was seen as an integral part of students’ moral and intellectual growth, that led a young de Coubertin to the conviction that “organized sport can create moral and social strength.”

“The British approach to sport,” said Rogge, “had a profound influence on Pierre de Coubertin, our founder, as he developed the framework for the modern Olympic movement.”

Today, Britain’s effect on the Olympic athletes is far more intimate.

“It’s just cool waking up in Britain,” says Stafford. “Rowing is on the news every night, and there’s a lot of history here.”

That qualifies as understatement. Every year, as many as 250,000 spectators line the Thames in London to watch eight-man crews from Oxford and Cambridge Universities compete – a race so old and revered, it is known only as the Boat Race. It dates to 1829.


Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!