Rugby and the Olympics

On Thursday 30 April 2009 Lord Sebastian Coe unveiled a plaque on the Doctor’s Wall commemorating the role of Thomas Arnold, Rugby’s legendary Head Master, in inspiring the French educationalist Baron Pierre de Coubertin to establish the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. For ‘it was to Arnold,’ de Coubertin later wrote in his memoirs, ‘that we turned, more or less consciously, for inspiration’.

"The role played by one of Britain’s oldest schools - and arguably Britain’s most famous Head Master - in the development of the modern Olympic Movement is to be celebrated. The powerful combination of Rugby School’s historical links to the Olympic Movement and their current local leadership role in learning through the London 2012 project places the School firmly in the wider Olympic family."

Lord Sebastian Coe,
Chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games

After unveiling the plaque Lord Coe went on, ‘It is very important, as we go towards 2012, that we understand our own history. Our own history is an important part and contribution to the development of the Olympic Movement. None more so than in [Rugby School] where [Thomas Arnold]... played such a critical role in the creation of the Olympic Movement and the values for which the Olympic Movement still aspires and strives for.’ 

The Olympic Torch arriving at Rugby School on 2 July, 2012 

The values which impressed de Coubertin were the athleticism and sportsmanship which he saw when he visited Rugby and other British public schools during the 1880s. Although Arnold died in 1842, de Coubertin had read the famous Rugby novel Tom Brown’s School Days as a young man and come to see Tom’s Head Master as ‘the leader and classic model of English educators’, one who defined ‘the precise role of athletics in education’. Arnold was ‘one of the founders of athletic chivalry’. 

This view was recently endorsed by John Lucas, Associate Professor of Physical Education at Pennsylvania State University, who has devoted his life to studying the history of the Games and who describes Arnold ‘as one of the most important, least understood, personalities in the evolution of the modern Olympics’. As the present Head Master put it in thanking Lord Coe, ‘It is a shame that so few people in this country are aware that one of the key figures in British 19th century history inspired the modern Olympics. When the Games return to Britain in 2012, they return to a country whose schools contributed to their creation.’

And in July 2012, the Olympic Torch came to Rugby School on its route towards the Olympic Stadium. Welcomed by pupils and their parents, staff, local school children and Olympic Gold Medallist, Edwin Moses, the Torch was carried into the Close to pause at the very plaque unveiled by Lord Coe. To celebrate the momentous occasion, the School performed a re-enactment of a 19th Century game of rugby with 35 boys kitted out in old style rugby kit.