Britons Revel In Their Sporting Inventions

The British tend to believe they invented pretty much every form of sport. They're even convinced they dreamed up the modern Olympic Games — thanks to an exercise-mad 19th century doctor.

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It's a mere one hundred days remain before the opening of the Olympic Games in London. From time to time, MORNING EDITION has been getting dispatches from NPR's London-based correspondent Philip Reeves, about the preparations. In his latest, Reeves says the British are gearing themselves up for this great contest, both physically and mentally.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Like everyone, everywhere, the British are dreaming of winning piles of Olympic medals. But if other athletes from other nations happen to run off with the lion's share of the golds again, the Brits will know how to console themselves.

They'll head for the pub, order a beer, and ruminate on the fact that half of these sports wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for them. There's a curious conviction among the British, that at the best games on this planet were invented by them. Well, maybe not by them directly; by their sporty ancestors, looking for something wholesome to do when they needed a break from drinking and running the British Empire.

The list of sports the Brits say they created is surprisingly long. It includes tennis, field hockey, soccer, badminton, golf, squash and modern boxing.

Everyone knows the Chinese are masters of ping pong. They've won far more Olympic gold medals than anyone else. Yet, if you suggest they invented that sport, the British will swiftly put you straight. They'll point out it began as an after-dinner game, played on the dinner table by cigar-puffing Victorian gentlemen, using a champagne cork as the ball, and books as the net and paddles. They called it wiff waff.

Some Brits even suggested this nation invented baseball, after a 260-year-old diary surfaced in England, containing a description of a kid, playing something that sounded a little like that great game.

There's more. The British also firmly believe Britain is the birthplace of the modern Olympics. In the heart of rural England - in a county called Shropshire - lies the little market town of Much Wenlock. Its inns and crooked houses go back to medieval times. In the mid 19th century, the local doctor was a man called William Penny Brookes.

Brookes was a passionate believer that sport's good for mind, body and soul, and that everyone should be allowed a crack at it, from farm hands to the local gentry. So he organized the Much Wenlock Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE AND TROTTING HORSES)

REEVES: The games began with a procession through town, led by a band - the model, perhaps, for today's opening ceremony. There were wheelbarrow races, singing, and quoits - another Old English invention that involved throwing a piece of rope or a horseshoe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REEVES: Townsfolk ran around a track, and tossed a big rock. Much Wenlock still holds its Olympics, annually, though with different sports.

Brookes was as interested in ancient Greece as he was in sport. He began to bombard the Greek government with letters, urging it to revive the Olympic Games in Athens. Eventually, Brookes recruited the support of a sports-mad French baron who took up his cause with gusto and won the Greeks around.

In 1896, the first modern Summer Olympics were held in Athens, four months after Brookes died. The rest is history.

As this year's games approach, the British are already reveling in all their sporting inventions. In a new book, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, boasts that these reveal the essential difference between Britain and the rest of the world. The people of other nations, like the French, looked at a dining table and merely saw the opportunity to have dinner, says Johnson. The ingenious British - looked at the same table and played wiff waff.

I know. I know - big deal. But don't we all need something to hang onto when we're weeping into our beer?

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

NEARY: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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