University of Leicester plans to recreate Leicester’s forgotten Grand Olympic Festival

Celebration on campus commemorates historic Victorian event

The University of Leicester is setting the stage for a celebration of the city’s ‘secret’ Olympic history.

In 1866, thirty years before the first modern Olympic Games in Greece, the city of Leicester hosted its own Grand Olympic Festival – on what is now the University of Leicester campus.

Now plans have been announced to commemorate this unique event with a recreation at the original location. Student athletes will compete in a number of old and modern sporting events – but without the assistance of modern inventions such as spiked running shoes and starting blocks.

The original Grand Olympic Festival was staged on 24 May 1866 in the grounds of the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum. After the First World War, the asylum buildings and grounds were donated to the city by local businessman Thomas Fielding Johnson for the establishment of a University College. That became the University of Leicester in 1957 and the former asylum building was named the Fielding Johnson Building.

Information about the Grand Olympic Festival of 1866 can be found in On the starting line – A history of athletics in Leicestershire by Jim Sharlott. The event was organised by the Leicester Athletic Society and consisted of 15 sporting events.

The Grand Olympic Festival of 2012 will take place on the University campus on 13 June because the exact anniversary falls in the middle of summer exams. Students are being invited to come forward and volunteer to compete in events such as the Hundred Yards Dash, Putting the Stone, the Two Mile Walking Race and Tossing the Cricket Ball.

Kerri Wheeler from the University’s Sports and Recreation service said: “Our Olympic Event this summer is a fantastic opportunity to showcase the University and its sporting heritage. We want as many students and staff from the University to get involved and celebrate Leicester’s Olympic History. The Grand Olympic Festival will be the main event from a week of fun activities, where people can play and try lots of different sports. We are hoping that scheduling this event after the exam period will give the hardworking students a fun and sociable event to look forward to. This event will also hopefully get everyone in Leicester even more excited about the Olympics 2012.”

The event will be open to public spectators and the University will particularly welcome anyone who attends in Victorian costume. Full details of timings will be announced nearer to the date.

The Olympic Games date back to Ancient Greece. They were revived in Athens in 1896, partly inspired by the Much Wenlock Olympic Society which has staged an event in that Shropshire village every year since 1850. Although the Much Wenlock games have become well-known, inspiring the name of one of the 2012 mascots, the Leicester games 16 years later have been almost completely forgotten.

For more about the Grand Olympic Festivals of 1866 and 2012, see www.le.ac.uk/1866festival

From University of Leicester Press Office

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