For spiritual inspiration Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, looked back to Olympia and the splendor of the ancient Greek Games.
Across the channel, a less obvious source provided a more immediate influence for the diminutive French aristocrat with the impressive handlebar moustache.
At the age of 12 de Coubertin read a French translation of «Tom Brown’s Schooldays», the classic tale of Rugby School and its renowned headmaster Thomas Arnold, first published in 1857.
From that day on, Rugby School and Arnold helped nurture a vision which was to culminate in the 1896 Athens Games and the foundation of the modern Olympic movement.
De Coubertin was an educationalist obsessed by what he regarded as the degeneracy of the French educational system after the humiliating defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.
Visits to a series of English schools convinced him of the value of organized games as a means of developing character, courage and self-reliance.
They also led him in 1890 to the Wenlock Olympian Games in the medieval Shropshire village of Much Wenlock, a multi-sports festival largely founded by another remarkable Victorian, the local doctor and philanthropist William Penny Brookes.
The Wenlock Games have been been called the bridge between the ancient and the modern Olympics and one of the London 2012 mascots is called Wenlock.
Arnold had been dead for more than 40 years when de Coubertin paid a visit to Rugby School in the 1880s and spent a night in the chapel holding vigil over his grave.
“My eyes fixed on the funeral slab on which, without epitaph, the great name of Thomas Arnold was inscribed,» de Coubertin wrote. «I dreamed that I saw before me the cornerstone of the British Empire.”
That cornerstone included sports which were in themselves influenced by the 19th century «muscular Christianity» movement which emphasized moral certainty and physical strength.
Thomas Hughes, author of «Tom Brown’s Schooldays», was a proponent of muscular Christianity and his book was intended as as a moral tract rather than than a novel.
The School-house match, a forerunner of the game named after the school, the cross-country run, the fight and the cricket game are the sporting highlights. Flashman, the bully expelled for drunkeness, was to become an acclaimed and libidinous anti-hero in a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser.
Today the School Close, where Willian Webb Ellis reputedly started the game of rugby union when he ran with the ball in 1823, still hosts rugby and cricket matches. But in the year of the third London Olympics, the school is now co-educational and offers, in all, more than 30 sports.
“It’s a very important counter-balance to cerebral activity as I’m sure Dr Thomas Arnold knew,» languages master Jonathan Smith told Reuters amid the noise and bustle of a school sports afternoon on a dazzlingly bright, spring day.
“It’s where you learn solidarity with your team mates and the importance of collaboration in competition with another team.
“It teaches them the impossibility of instant gratification. It’s a combination of individual endeavor and team spirit and bringing those two virtues together. After all, we want excellence as much in games as as we do in games results, no team is going to want any player who doesn’t play to the best of his ability and who is not playing to the top of his game.
“So it both encourages the individual to make the best of their talents and play, if not perish, for the team.”
Rugby School librarian and archivist Rusty MacLean said Arnold’s particular genius was to give the senior boys responsibility as well as power.
“He was very keen on physical exercise as a means to an end, to a higher purpose,» MacLean explained in the hush of the school library.
“He also felt that he wanted to get rid of the barbaric pursuits of hunting and shooting and fishing. The daily life at the school, even up to the 20th century was largely run by the senior boys.
“You got organized games. You got games where the rule of fair play were very important. The boys owned these games. Rugby football was their creation. Although there were lots of different varieties, the distinctive features of the game came from here.
“This evolution from games to sports did not happen in isolation. It was happening in a much wider environment of innovation and change. These ideas, those beliefs, self-governance that were helping to create the foundation of the British Empire.”
Arnold was a classical scholar at a time when education was strongly based on Greek mathematics and philosophy. Public interest in classical Greece had been fueled by German explorations at Olympia and Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations in north-east Turkey which convinced him he had found Homer’s ancient Troy.
“The explorations that were going on, the rediscovery of classical civilization had a great deal of influence, whether directly or indirectly,» added MacLean.
The renewed interest in ancient Greece and the Olympic games was accompanied by a hunger for games generally which led to an extraordinary epoch in Victorian Britain during which most of the modern sports were either invented or formally codified.
Among them were three of the major sports to feature in the London Games starting on July 27. The British Amateur Swimming Association was founded in 1869 and the English Amateur Athletics Association formed in 1880, the same year as the British Amateur Boxing Association.
Amateur was a key word in British sport where the system was weighted in favour of wealthy aristocrats who could afford to play in their leisure time. Professionals were not welcome, particularly in rowing where the Leander club, extended the definition to tradesmen, artisans or laborers. A fierce and ultimately losing battle against professionalism in the Olympics was to be fought throughout much of the next century.
De Coubertin, although a social reformer who as Olympic historian David Wallechinsky notes «was well aware of the inequities of the amateur system» used the structure of the Henley Royal Regatta stewards as a model for the first International Olympic Committee.
“He was…alert to the social prejudices of the day, aware that the presence on the sporting committee he was about to create, of titled noblemen would enhance credibility, much as it does in the present day with charitable organizations,» wrote David Millar in his official history of the Olympic Games.
Only 14 countries attended the 1896 Games but its success was assured when Greek Spiridon Louis won the marathon, introduced to commemorate the legend of Pheidippides bringing the news of the victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC.
De Coubertin later left no doubts about the debt he owed to the British public schools and his admiration generally for a remarkable era in British history.
“Although we may criticize on many points the teaching which public schools afford in England, there can be no reasonable doubt about their providing a strong and vigorous education of body and character,» he said.
“To the merits of this education we may ascribe a large share in the prodigious and powerful extension of the British Empire in Queen Victoria’s reign.”
In 2009, the chairman of the London 2012 organizing committee Sebastian Coe, unveiled a plaque on the Doctor’s Wall at Rugby School to commemorate Thomas Arnold. He has no doubts about the role the school played in influencing de Coubertin’s magnificent obsession.
“Central, absolutely central. De Coubertin visited Britain primarily to understand the moral tenor and tone of people in this country,» Coe told Reuters.
“He looked across the channel at what he though we were doing. A lot he thought he recognized as an ethos in schools. He wanted to understand more about it.
“De Coubertin is often referred to as the founding father of the Olympic movement and I think we accept that that is probably the case. But much of his thinking was heavily impacted by both Arnold and Penny Brookes.» [Reuters]