Oddball Olympics

4 minute read

When the flame is lighted in Athens this August, the Olympic Games will have returned to their rightful home — correct? Tell it to the townsfolk of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, England, where they’ve been hosting their own version of the Games off and on since 1612. Indeed, if Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics in 1896, had been taken literally when he asserted that “The Anglo-Saxon race is the only one that fully appreciates the moral influence of physical culture,” we all might have been spared synchronized swimming. Instead we might be cheering as the world’s finest athletes hurl themselves downhill in pursuit of a piece of cheese or watching slo-mo replays of bloodied shin kickers or muddied bog snorkelers going for the gold. For, as J.R. Daeschner relates in his obsessive, down-and-dirty travelogue, True Brits (Arrow Books; 340 pages), they’re the kind of thing that passed for “physical culture” among the Anglo-Saxons of yore. And what’s more, such ancient sports and kindred traditions are very much alive and, er, kicking in 21st century Britain.

The Cotswold “Olimpicks” — events included cudgel fights and bearbaiting — survived until the intervention of tut-tutting vicars, landowners and justices of the peace in 1852. The sport of shin kicking, a variant of wrestling — with heavy boots and few rules — hung on a few decades longer. It even enjoyed a brief vogue in the U.S. In 1883, New York’s Sunday Mercury ran a wince-making account of one bout in which a certain McTevish “gave Grabby what is known as the sole scrape. Beginning at the instep and ending just below the knee, Grabby’s left shin was scraped almost clear of skin.”

As Daeschner explains, it wasn’t only blood sport that scuppered the Olimpicks and other festivals like it. It was also the attendant vice and brawls between drunken fans from rival villages or religions. Since its revival in 1951, the Cotswold Olimpicks have been a quieter, more bucolic affair, albeit imbued with what Daeschner, 34, a Colorado-born U.K. resident, describes as the “secular trinity that made Britain what it is today: Land, Booze and Patriotism.”

In truth, not all of the time-ingrained rituals in True Brits really count as sport: horn dancing (a kind of line dance for aristocrats toting 1,000-year-old reindeer horns), Pope burning (in effigy, of course) and the Darkie Day revels in Padstow, Cornwall (think merry English minstrels in blackface) all defy the march of time and political correctness in the name of tradition — with a bottle or two under its belt. And without Dutch courage, who would be daft enough to launch themselves down a 70 slope over 230 m in pursuit of a wheel of cheese? It’s a small miracle that none of the scores of locals who have been taking part each May at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire has been killed. But broken collarbones and crushed vertebrae are painfully common, and cave-rescue teams stand by to extricate the wounded. And the prize? The cheese.

The very purpose of such antics is to defy explanation. “It’s a ritual, innit?” is the best any of these Olimpians can come up with, and Daeschner wisely avoids proposing any fancier theories. Instead he joins in, getting his ribs crushed while Swaying the Hood (150-a-side prehistoric rugby), denting shins at Chipping Campden and passing out in a pub toilet having tried to go whisky-for-whisky with the Burryman — who is sewn, head and body, into a suit of prickly burdock burrs so that all the ambient evils of South Queensferry near Edinburgh will stick to him.

Maybe the key to the mysteries of True Brits is to be found in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales. We know who came up with the bright idea of swimming submerged two lengths of a 60-m trench of freezing ooze: a local hotelier with rooms to let. And we know when: 1986. Last year, he added bike- bog-snorkeling (the same deal, on wheels) to the program, and the tabloids and tourists flocked to watch. Was cheese rolling, one wonders, invented by some ancient Anglo-Saxon Cheese Marketing Board? Daeschner’s forays into cussed British culture blur the lines between past and present. And his plunging into the bog to witness tradition in the making means we don’t have to. He clearly passes the dope test.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com