Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger!

Cinematograph of exercise movements

Sketches of excercise movements from ‘Cinematographic Reader’, Birmingham Athletic Institute, 1930s (Ref: MS 1468/4/1)

With the London Olympic Games still in mind it seems timely to examine some of the history behind the ideals of the Games through the records of the Birmingham Athletic Institute.

Firstly, a quick re-cap of Olympic history: the first Olympians (official starting date 776 BC) engaged in running events, a pentathlon (jumping, discus, javelin, foot race and wrestling), boxing, wrestling and equestrian events (more chariots than dressage), and was staged in Olympia, Greece.

All hail Coroebus, who tradition has it, was the first Olympic Champion and a cook from the city of Elis. The ancient games were not only a manifestation of human physical endurance, but also of hugely fundamental religious significance; the sports went side by side with ritual sacrifices honouring Zeus whose famous statue by Phidias stood in his temple at Olympia and was known as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The ancient games had run their course by the 5th century AD, mainly due to the spreading Roman influence in Greece. Official ending date is either 393 AD (end of all pagan cults and practices by order of the emperor) or 426 AD (ordered destruction of all Greek Temples) – take your pick.

The resurgence of the Games is well documented; although maybe not so well known is the attempt to hold a national annual Olympic Festival in Revolutionary France from 1796 to 1798. No prizes for guessing what happened if you were last in the 100 metres dash… but significant in marking the introduction of the metric system into sport.

Better known are the Wenlock Olympian Games, the brainchild of Dr William Penny Brookes, social reformer and believer in education for the working classes. After establishing an educational reading group in his home town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, and expanding the classes in 1850 by introducing an Olympian Class, well, the rest is history – Baron Pierre de Coubertin came along to the annual games in 1890 and was inspired by them to found the International Olympic Committee. At the first Olympic Congress held in June 1894, it was decided that the first Olympic Games of the modern era would be held in Athens in 1896 and would internationally rotate and occur every four years.

Birmingham Athletic Institute & Birmingham Athletic Club: the Athens games were a great success, but the 1900 and 1904 games, side-shows to the Paris Expo and St Louis World’s Fair, didn’t do so well. However, London were the proud hosts in 1908 and an equally proud Birmingham Athletic Institute (as minuted in the June 1908 committee meeting), announced:

Olympic Games to be held at the Stadium July 14th 15th & 16th The secretary reported that the AGA had nominated the following BAI men as representatives in the British team…
For Gymnastics – Walter Tysall & Samuel Hodgetts
& A.G. Faulkner has entered for wrestling & that Mr A. Bradley had been selected as the Director of the British team.’

Birmingham Athletics Association

B.A.I. Minutes, 1909 (Ref: MS 1468/1/1/1)

The next meeting of October 1908 gave the results of the Gymnastic Competition, with Walter Tysall beaten into second place by the man from Italy and S. Hodgetts coming in a plucky 6th. Unlucky wrestler Faulkner was beaten on points in the first round.

The Institute, formed in 1889 and closely linked to the earlier established Birmingham Athletic Club, founded in 1866, was influential in promoting physical education in schools and providing adult training for teachers in physical education. By 1886, mainly due to the influence of the Birmingham Athletic Club, the Birmingham School Board accepted the proposition for the introduction of daily exercise in all schools under its management.

B.A.I. Classes, 1894 (Ref: MS 1468/1/1/1)

However, the Institute‘s concerns were not only confined to the school curriculum. Middle-aged gentlemen were also catered for. On Tuesday and Friday nights in 1894, you could pop along to the sessions intended for ‘professional gentlemen and others, requiring a light course of Physical Training where Fencing, Swedish Drill, and Light Gymnastics will be taught.’ Since those heady days of London 1908, Birmingham clubs have continued the proud tradition of training and sending athletes to successive Games.

And I have no doubt that athletes of all generations are inextricably linked – from Coreobus, the cook, first Olympic Champion (making the fastest omelette in some Ancient Greek Saturday Morning Kitchen?) to the Birmingham boys, Tysall and Hodgetts, through to the Bolt and Mobot crossing the finish line to the strains of Vangelis –  all experience the same feelings of elation and/or disappointment as they cross that finish line and all embody the Olympic ideals of Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger.

Judy Dennison (runner – failed, but still trying)

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One response to “Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger!

  1. Pingback: 200 and Counting! | The Iron Room

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