ABCD Europe

Asset-based community development in action, all over Europe.

A strengths-based approach to Sport: Sport as an asset for Community Building

By Cormac Russell

I’m a great fan of the Olympics, and a sucker for the pageantry. I can’t help but be impressed by the BBC panoramic coverage, with multiple options at the click of a button. And then there was the Queen’s entrance (via parachute) under the watchful eye of Bond…James Bond. It would be easy to forget amidst all the hype that the modern day Olympics started in the village of Wenlock in Shropshire under the guidance of Dr William Penny Brookes in 1850. In the early days it grew out of a reading society that he had previously established.    

The first Games were held in October 1850, and included a mixture of athletics and also traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. These early Games often included a 'fun' event; like a wheelbarrow race with the idea that everybody should be able to get involved in some way.

The tradition of pageantry so much part of the modern day opening of the Olympic Games was and continues to be an important feature at the Wenlock Games also. A procession of flag bearers, competitors and officials parade through the village streets forming the centre piece for the opening ceremony; a tradition which continues to this day, every July.

Brookes’ vision was as inclusive as it was expansive. Over time events for ‘all-comers’ became an important feature of the Wenlock Games seeing competitors from London in the South and Liverpool in the North participating in the Games.

In 1859 Brookes showed just how expansive his vision really was, when in that same year he was in active contact with the organisers of the Olympian Games in Greece, and even went so far as to send £10 (a handsome amount in those days) to be presented to the winner of an event in Athens. The organising committee decided to award the Wenlock prize to the winner of the 'Long' race.

In 1865, with Hulley of Liverpool and Ravenstein of the German Gymnastic Club in London, Brookes established the National Olympian Association (NOA). The aim was to develop a sport's association for amateur athletes. Their first Games were held in 1866 at the Crystal Palace, London, and were hailed as a great success, attracting over 10,000 spectators. And so the modern Olympic Games were born, 146 years ago.

Danny Boyle’s metaphor of the Queen parachuting into the Games is apt, subconsciously or otherwise, it communicates an awareness that these are the people’s Games, born of community pride, sustained by the dedication of athletes, their families and their communities from villages and neighbourhoods across the globe. The 2012 Olympics are cause for international celebration, and rightly a source of national pride. But let’s not forget as well as being a tribute to elite athletes it is a celebration of all things local, and the inspiring truth that a book reading club could generate an idea that changed the world.  As well as celebrating competition and individual achievement in the field of sport, these Olympic Games provide us with a wonderful context for starting another conversation around how sport can become an asset for community building. Why not start that conversation right here using Wenlock as our inspiration?

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