Thursday, 11 August 2022

GB's first Olympic champion went to our school

AUTHORS of a new book illustrating the history of the Olympic Games believe they have discovered that the first British medallist was a former pupil of the Oratory School in Woodcote

AUTHORS of a new book illustrating the history of the Olympic Games believe they have discovered that the first British medallist was a former pupil of the Oratory School in Woodcote.

About 150 pupils from the Oratory Preparatory School in Goring Heath contributed to the 280-page book, which is called The Olympic Games: Chipping Campden 1612 to London 2012 and co-edited by teachers Jonty Winch and Rory Webber.

It was Mr Winch who found out that John Pius Boland, who won two gold medals in the lawn tennis tournament at the 1896 Athens Olympics, had been a captain of the independent secondary school between 1888 and 1889, when it was in Birmingham.

Mr Winch, who is head of English, said it was an exciting project to work on. “The aim was to teach the children that there was a little bit more than just the London Olympics and there was a background,” he said.

“In the course of doing so we were fascinated to find that the first British medallist was from the Oratory School. It was something that hadn’t come out before and was a wonderful starting point for the whole publication. It was quite exciting to find this out. I hope the school will follow this up and perhaps commemorate in some way this remarkable achievement.”

Mr Winch was aware of Mr Boland and his achievements but it was only when he read sports historian Martin Polley’s book Sport In History that he discovered Boland was the first British medallist in the tennis singles and doubles events.

Boland, who was Irish but competed with a combined Great Britain team, received two diplomas, two medals and two olive wreaths from the king of Greece.

He later recalled his hands being so full after the presentation that he forgot to descend the steps backwards as protocol demanded.

Mr Winch said there was an argument that Scottish weightlifter Launceston Elliot was the first British Olympic champion but he received his medal later than Boland.

The Oratory researchers also discovered that Pierre de Coubertain, the founder of the modern Olympics, probably visited the school when Boland was one of its 60 pupils.

Mr Winch said: “De Coubertain was very impressed with the British system, where sport was allied closely to the Empire.

“Public schools focused on sport because it was producing the right men to administer and look after the military and de Coubertain was interested in using this in sport.”

Rugby School was credited with influencing the modern Olympics because de Coubertain was impressed with its sportsmanship and believed sport improved education by building social and moral strength.

Mr Winch said: “Rugby School takes most of the credit but de Coubertain did go to other schools, including the Oratory, and we’ve contributed in some way, even if it was not the most publicised, towards the modern Olympics.”

The pupils were taken to visit the British Museum and the Olympic Stadium in London while they were researching the book.

They produced their own articles on London 2012, including reporting on individual events and writing about what the Olympics meant to them personally.

The first part of the book was written by year seven and eight pupils as part of their sport reporting course for the English syllabus. The rest of the school were then invited to contribute and it took two years to compile. Pupils from years one and two staged a play in which they traced the entire history of the Games.

Mr Winch said: “By the end of it we had quite a fine collection of articles that covered the whole of the Olympics since 1896 to the present day. We endeavoured to make sure no article was repeated.

“Each child took a particular topic that they found interesting. For example, a Dutch girl covered Amsterdam 1928 and Estelle Born’s father Eric participated in the judo at Barcelona in 1992 so she had an interest in those Games.

“I think it created great enthusiasm for the Games and gave them a far better understanding of what its history and tradition are about. They could compare athletes in 2012 with those in previous years and learn about each sport in the process.”

The book also provides accounts of outstanding local athletes as well as the articles about Henley hosting the rowing events at the 1908 and 1948 Games.

It covers the achievements of Mary Rand, who was nicknamed the “Henley housewife” by the national press, after she won a gold medal in the long jump, a silver in the pentathlon and a bronze in the 4 x 100m relay in Tokyo 1964.

A front page of the Standard reporting her homecoming reception in Henley is included in the book.

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