When the Olympic Games were held at the University of Leicester (no, honestly)

Posted by mjs76 at Mar 16, 2012 11:50 AM |
University plans to recreate forgotten Victorian event.

In this year of Olympic excitement, as the nation prepares for the 2012 London Games in July, historians naturally look back to previous British Olympic events. The Games were staged in London in 1908 and again in 1948, but in many ways the capital was a Johnny-come-lately because the Olympics had already been held in Leicester – in 1866.

Although the First Olympiad in Athens in 1896 is considered the starting point of the modern Olympic movement, reviving a sporting idea practised by the Ancient Greeks, in fact there were a number of ‘Olympic Games’ staged throughout Europe during the 19th century. Probably the most famous is the Much Wenlock Games which were first staged in 1850 and continue to this day. These not only inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertain to stage his Athens Olympiad, they also inspired the name of one of the 2012 mascots.*

Much less well known is the ‘Grand Olympic Festival’ which was held in Leicester on Thursday 24 May 1866, a full 30 years before Athens and 42 years before the first London Olympics. The reason why this sporting landmark is especially relevant to the University of Leicester is that the Grand Olympic Festival did not take place in a park or at a race track but in the grounds of the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum. Or as we now call it, the Fielding Johnson Building – the main administrative building of the University.

We believe this makes the University of Leicester the first higher education institution in the world to have staged an Olympic event on its campus!

We couldn’t let an Olympic year pass without commemorating our own unique Olympic heritage so in June we plan to recreate the 1866 festival right here on campus where it was first staged 146 years ago. Details of the event will be announced nearer the date, but now would be the time (if you are able) to start growing a fine, manly moustache and some bushy sideburns if you want to look the part.

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Information about the Grand Olympic Festival of 1866 can be found in On the starting line – A history of athletics in Leicestershire by Jim Sharlott. The event was organised by the Leicester Athletic Society and consisted of 15 sporting events – all for men of course. Admission was by pre-bought ticket, priced at one shilling for the ground or two shillings for the stand.

JD Thompson, Secretary of the Leicester Athletic Society, took home three medals, for the 100 Yards, the One Mile Flat (six laps of the 293.3 yard track) and Putting the Stone. That event of course is now called the Shotput, while the Pole Leap has become the Pole Vault, and in 1866 Throwing the Hammer still used a 16-pound sledgehammer. And there was no cage, so it could be a very dangerous event for spectators.

Also with three wins to his credit was E Gittins, who triumphed in the Three Quarter-Mile Steeplechase, the 200 Yards Hurdles and the High Jump (where he tied with S Sheen). Although we don’t know anything about most of the winners, we do actually have biographical information for AY Nutt, who won the Pole Leap and a sport which is no longer practised in its purest form, the Cricket Ball.

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AY Nutt in later life. Bet he could still toss a mean cricket ball.

Born in Leicestershire in 1847, by 1866 Alfred Young Nutt was an apprentice to a Leicester firm of architects. The following year he moved to Windsor to take up a post as a draughtsman in Windsor Castle’s Office of Works. He stayed in that town the rest of his life where he was a successful artist and architect, designing many buildings and in great favour with the Royal Family. He was particularly active in 1887 and 1897 for the Golden and Diamond Jubilees. Nutt died in 1924 and many of his paintings and sketches were subsequently donated to the Borough of Windsor by his daughter.

Although he has no living direct descendents, Nutt is well-remembered, There is a photograph of him in the National Portrait Gallery, the Windsor Local History Group have a detailed page about him and there is a blue plaque on his house. While this acknowledges his work as an artist and an architect there wasn’t space it seems to record his teenage ability to toss a cricket ball 86 and a quarter yards.

Other events on that May afternoon not yet mentioned were the Under 18 High Jump, the Quarter Mile Steeplechase, the Long Jump, the Quarter Mile Flat Race and the ‘Consolation Stakes’ Quarter Mile Race with Hurdles.

Although there are contemporary reports in a couple of local newspapers, which Sharlott diligently researched for his book, no paintings or engravings of the event exist so some details remain unknown, such as the location of the stands. Nevertheless, we know enough to stage a new Leicester Grand Olympic Festival 146 years later in the exact same location.

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The 2012 Grand Olympic Festival will take place on Wednesday 13 June, as the exact anniversary is in the middle of exams. There will be ten events, some replicating the 1866 programme (including the Cricket Ball Toss, to see if anyone can beat AY Nutt) and a few new ones. All students are invited to compete, irrespective of their actual sporting ability, or to help with holding tapes etc if they prefer a less exhausting role.

In keeping with the Victorian origins of the event, new-fangled, modern devices such as spiked running shoes and starting blocks will be strictly forbidden. Impressively groomed facial hair will undoubtedly add authenticity to competitors but is not mandatory (unlike 1866, women can compete). The spectators’ area will be open to the public and anyone who wants to add to the authenticity of the event by dressing in Victorian costume will be particularly welcome. The Hammer Throw is not scheduled so it should all be relatively safe.

More details of the day will be posted on Newsblog and elsewhere nearer the time. For now, make a date in your diaries. The Olympic Games come back to Leicester, after a century and a half, on 13 June 2012. (A similar event, possibly slightly larger, is believed to be taking place in London a few weeks later.)

For more information on the Grand Olympic Festival of 2012, please contact Miss Kerri Wheeler by electronic mail (the wonder of the age!) at kew22@le.ac.uk

*Wenlock’s friend Mandeville is named after the Stoke Mandeville Games, begun in 1948 and considered a precursor to the modern Paralympics.

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