Much ado about the Olympics (and the London Games are causing a bit of a stir too)
Editor, Global Trader magazine
Post date: Friday, 13th July 2012
Eric Jackson asks … Can Wenlock give London a run for its money in the Olympic commercial stakes?
Imagine Charles Hawtry, the puny, timorous actor in the Carry On films, pitted against Geoff Capes, once crowned the World’s Strongest Man, in an arm-wrestling contest, or Chipping Norton United’s Under-12s taking to the field against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. No contest, for sure, but then as we British are so fond of saying – although would we if victory came easily? – it’s not the winning that counts, but the taking part, and in the one-sided giants v minnows stakes the conclusions don’t come more foregone than the contest between two places in England this summer.
In the big red-white-and-blue blousy corner, promoted by the blond bouffantsporting and harrumphing mayor Boris Johnson, with his talk of multi-billion pound legacies and thousands of jobs, is megatropolis London; while in the understated, quaint corner, represented by the mayor Lesley Durbin, is the olde-worlde monikered, slightly sleepy and picturesque Shropshire village of Much Wenlock (population 3,000).
We all know that London is staging the show of its life with the Olympic Games, an event putting Brand Britain in the shop window, costing and making billions, boosting and testing business and accruing TV and advertising revenues on an unimaginable scale. But about 150 miles away the 700-year-old market town of Much Wenlock, one of Shropshire’s oldest settlements, is staging the Olympic Games, too.
Birthplace of the modern Olympic movement
It’s no gimmick. The town, whose name is believed to mean Great White Place, in reference to a nearby limestone edge, can rightly claim to be the birthplace of the modern Olympic movement, which is probably why it holds the games every year – while London is only afforded the privilege once every blue moon.
Wenlock – the locals tend to ditch the ’Much’ – became the catalyst for what is now the modern Olympics when Dr William Penny Brookes campaigned for the revival of the Ancient Greek Games, and the first Wenlock Olympian Games took place in 1850.
The idea so impressed Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had watched the spectacle, that he took up the baton for the cause, and the first international Olympic Games – under his authority – took place 49 years later in 1869.
Since then the two events, though similar in spirit, have diverged beyond recognition (London kindly acknowledged the link by naming one of its two mascots ‘Wenlock’ and the town was a key destination for the torch relay on May 30). While London will have tennis stars such as Andy Murray and Usain Bolt, Wenlock will stage Kwik cricket. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, even produced a lavish ‘manifesto’ for the London Olympics, on top of all the other corporate literature promoting the games. Wenlock produces programmes and pamphlets.
The Johnson manifesto has the London mayor rallying the population by saying: "It is estimated that the Games will provide a sustained economic boost worth £5.1bn by 2015, and I am determined to harness those benefits for the capital."
Yet while credit rating agency Moody’s played down the importance of the Olympics to London’s lasting economy, Boris was bullish, saying: "Our plans will help facilitate an additional £1.6bn worth of extra positive media coverage for Britain and are predicted to bring a £750m consumer spending boost, with 5.5 million day-visitors during the Games themselves and nearly 300,000 staying overseas visitors, primarily in London."
In Wenlock, there’s a kind of economic dividend not only from the Wenlock games, but also, surprisingly, from the London games. During the build up to London 2012, Shropshire Council has worked closely with VisitEngland, VisitBritain and regional tourism partners to maximise the benefit to the town. Material has been translated into nine different languages and a series of films and resources were commissioned to support the story. There have been more than 100 media visits over the last 12 months from both national and international journalists, including ones from India, Brazil, Russia, Japan, China and Canada. It is hoped that they could pave the way for the predicted increase in UK inbound tourism.
Investment has also been made into tourist guides, interpretation boards around the town and downloadable guides and walks. A sculpture created by local metal worker Adrian Reynolds was unveiled in 2011 to commemorate Dr Penny Brookes. Potter Mike Fletcher, originally from industrial Walsall, has seen an increase in trade at his Wenlock Pottery business, founded in 1979, which has been making prizes for the Wenlock Olympian Games for a “good 15 years” and is now making other sporting prizes. People, he believes, want to have something made in Wenlock.
"It's definitely because the Olympics is happening in this country, and we’ve had a 40 to 50% increase in trade over last the six months," said Mike, who has been a potter since the age of 14. "We’ve noticed a big increase in the public coming into our gallery."
The company – and the town – welcomes visitors from all over the world because of the town’s connection with the Olympics, and from making "hardly any pots" a week, the firm is now making "nearly 200 pots a day".
The firm’s offices and warehouses have been developed into a bed and breakfast, and staff have noticed a big increase in custom compared to last year. "It’s surprising how many people in the UK didn’t know until recently that the modern Olympic Games were from Wenlock."
Access to Wenlock and its surrounding area has been improved with a new tourist bus service. The Wenlock Wanderer travels along the Wenlock Edge, through the ancient woodland of Stretton Hills and on to Acton Scott Historic Working Farm and Church Stretton.
Since June a further shuttle bus has operated between Wenlock and Ironbridge, and the Much Wenlock Museum, through a £520,800 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, has been refurbished. Sharon Clayton, the town council’s clerk, admits that a lot more income could be generated.
"Although our games usually attract around 1,500 participants and the same amount of spectators, the watching is free so no tickets are sold," she explained. "Most of the visitors stay in surrounding towns. There are 3,052 en-suite bedrooms available in the surrounding area, ranging from bed and breakfasts to Weston Park stately home. There is a wealth of selfcatering and camping accommodation, but Wenlock itself has primarily bed and breakfast accommodation."
London, in contrast, has gleaming five-star hotels and Olympic visitors with pockets deep enough to afford them, while plans are afoot to improve the housing stock for Londoners. Explains Boris: "I will make sure that after the closing ceremony all Londoners will continue to benefit from the hard work and investment of the last four years. That is why, using new powers secured from the government, I will be safeguarding the economic legacy of the Games by implementing our detailed plans to build 11,000 new homes and create 10,000 new jobs. I will use my good relations with the business community to make use of the Games venues with strong interest in taking on some of the venues and expanding the grassroots sporting legacy through a £30m programme benefitting over 250,000 Londoners."
Of course such grand plans are a world away from the ambitions of the organisers behind the Wenlock Games, although they did declare last year’s their biggest and best event.
Biggest and best
"It has been a full and lively Festival taking place on six sites across Shropshire with 1,364 competitors and around 2,500 spectators enjoying five days of sports," said the Much Wenlock Olympian Society president Jonathan Edwards (Olympic triple jump record holder and gold medalist) about 2011.
"New events were added to the programme, including equestrian, swimming, netball, hockey, junior modern bialthlon and 5-a-side football. Over the five days, we have been delighted to welcome international interest from both competitors and press. Notably, Sweden and New Zealand were represented in the road race, and a team from the Coubertin School in Norway competed in the volleyball.
"There has been a range of international media interest. TV coverage has come from Australia, Japan, Finland, USA, Brazil and France with BBC and Sky Sports News broadcasting to the British public.
"It is generally agreed that we can declare 2011 as the most successful Wenlock Olympian Games to date. The London Olympics has brought increased attention and the world press to our door. To celebrate the London Olympics we are making the 2012 Games even more special! We have added a number of new sports to the programme, including a marathon, gliding and a 100-mile walk."
The 126th Wenlock Olympian Games opened on Sunday, 8 July with the marathon, half marathon beginning in Much Wenlock, and equestrian events in Broseley, and closes on Sunday, July 22 with gliding competitions at Long Mynd. It will take place on seven sites in and around Shropshire, but centred on Much Wenlock. A schedule of events, times, dates and locations is available on the Wenlock Olympian Society website www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk.
This article first appeared in Global Trader, Summer 2012. To read the entire publication, click on the ebook. In the same issue, in the regular GT Summit, business leaders and academics discuss a hot global trade topic. The question this issue is:
Do you believe that a report from credit rating agency Moody’s, stating that the London Olympics would only provide a short-lived fillip to the British economy rather than any major boost, is likely to be proved correct or that we stand to gain a strong financial legacy?