The late spring sunshine is sending long, olive shadows over the landscape. There’s a crowd of about 3,000, chomping on hog-roast and listening to brass bands. Someone next to me is wondering out loud when our race is supposed to start when a man appears with a clipboard and says “Ok — marks, set, go!”, and the 12 of us all scuttle off down the hill.
So begins my role in Robert Dover’s annual sporting fair, the Cotswold Olimpick Games. The event bills itself as ‘the Original English Olimpick Games’. It stretches back to 1612, so marked its 400th anniversary when its upstart younger sibling was conjuring up that ecstatic, gold-dazed summer down in London last year. There aren’t huge similarities between the two competitions, but they share altruistic origins. Dover himself was a well-to-do barrister who founded the Cotswold Games to provide ‘harmlesse honest sports’ for local people. It’s an ethos that’s stuck.
There’s an anarchic feel to proceedings. My event, for which I’ve been undergoing rigorous carbohydrate-loading, is the five-mile cross-country run. It’s one of the more standard disciplines on the timetable, appearing just before spurning the barre — essentially log tossing — and shin kicking.
Earlier, I watch the first event of the evening, the Champion of the Hill team challenge. It centres on a series of obstacle races and culminates in the chance to pour as many buckets of water as possible over people in opposing teams. By the end, they’re all very wet. The modus operandi of the judge on the PA appears to be a) announce some fairly loose rules, b) get the event started, then c) let all hell unfold.
No one seems to mind. The banks of spectators cheer and guffaw as one. They’ve applauded the opening ceremony (five minutes of ostrich-feathered hats, pipe bands and cannon fire) and soaked up the sideshows (from longsword fights and falconry displays to dancing ponies) and, quite frankly, they’re getting the kind of entertainment they’ve come for. In its official bid document for 2012, the British Olympic Association name-checked The Cotswold Olimpicks, describing them as ‘the first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’. They continue to stir.
As evening gives way to night and the sporting contests wind down, a different mood takes hold. The spread of open farmland below begins to purple in the dusk. There are fireworks. Then a giant bonfire beacon is lit, and from it a couple of thousand flaming torches, and at length the crowd begins a mile-long procession down narrow country lanes into the small town of Chipping Campden, where live music and open-air carousing await. In the half-light, the torchlit procession looks incredible, like some mass pagan rite.
And my race? I came sixth. Or at least I think I did. I started running the wrong way after arriving back in the main field — what with there being no course marshals — but finished just in time for someone in the shin kicking semi-finals to ask if they could borrow my tracksuit trousers. And I bet Mo Farah’s never been able to say that.