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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.  

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Ten years later, the Henley Royal Regatta began – a series of knockout races for the best crews in the world. Older than the Olympic Games themselves, Henley “is the pinnacle of racing,” says Mitch Tamkin, a former US junior rower who has come to London to watch the rowing.

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The sport’s deep roots in England are as obvious as the Olympic venue itself, England’s premier boarding school, Eton College. The centuries-old school built the artificial lake between 1996 and 2006 at a cost of £17 million – $27 million at today’s exchange rates.

“To have rowing at Eton is truly amazing,” says Tamkin. “It’s absolutely perfect.”

That sentiment spreads far beyond Eton Dorney.

  • Road cyclists make a left turn in front Queen Elizabeth’s house (Buckingham Palace) and cross the finish line on The Mall (rhymes with “pal,” please). If they hit Trafalgar Square, they’ve gone too far. If they win a medal, in the time trial, they get their medals in Hampton Court Palace, built for Henry VIII (of "The Tudors" fame, of course.)
  • Archers loose their arrows at Lord’s Cricket Ground, widely seen as the home of cricket.
  • US fencer and amateur historian Tim Morehouse discovered that Queen Elizabeth still has a royal duelist to defend her honor and calls the London Games “a homecoming for fencing.”
  • The Olympic soccer finals are slated for Wembley, a palatial stadium steeped in history. “Winning the gold medal anywhere is huge, but winning in such a historic place would just be phenomenal,” said Lloyd, a USA midfielder, at a pre-Olympic media summit.
  • Beach volleyball players jump, spike, and dig at Horse Guards Parade – the venue for Britain’s historic Trooping of the Colours, a lavish military parade held in honor of the queen. Spectators in the top row of the temporary stadium’s south stand can even peer into the back garden of No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence. 

Yet perhaps nowhere is the London effect more noticeable than in tennis. In Athens and Beijing, the tennis facilities appeared to have been delivered shrink-wrapped in a fleet of cargo containers. The most common color was concrete gray, and the only reason to linger on the grounds between matches was if you needed a trip to the loo.

In London, Wimbledon itself is a reason to go to tennis – regardless of the tennis. Not all the players are thrilled, mind you. The state of the courts is comparatively poor because the grand slam tournament just ended last month and groundskeepers didn’t have time to regrow a healthy lawn. “I understand that it is hard to make new courts after three weeks, but they are not as good” as during the Wimbledon tournament, said Agnieszka Radwanska, who made the Wimbledon final but lost in the first round in the Olympics.

Roger Federer, too, admitted that it would feel weird to wear Swiss red instead of the Wimbledon all whites.

For fans, though, Olympic tennis at the All England Club is a once-in-a-lifetime treat – the grounds a riot of lavender and Henman Hill buzzing. Says Sally Roblin, a London resident who also comes to the Wimbledon Championships, “it’s fantastic.” 

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