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Forget the Greeks, British ideals undergird the modern Olympics

From rowing to fencing to equestrian to sailing, the London Games represent a return to many sports' roots. More broadly, the Olympic ideal is founded on ideas that emerged in England nearly two centuries ago.  

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A huge crowd watches British rowers compete to earn bronze in the men's rowing eight in Dorney, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics Wednesday.

Alexander Hassenstein/AP

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At Eton Dorney, there is no controversy about empty seats at Olympic venues. Here, the stands are not nearly big enough, and the overflow crowd spills a third of a mile down the course – bare-chested men made canvases for the Union Jack and picnickers lounging contentedly on the wide sweep of grass, sipping plastic flutes of champagne. 

This is rowing, and this is Britain. So this is a carnival.

Every morning, American pairs rower Silas Stafford gets goosebumps getting off the bus. The stands are packed and the crowd is buzzing well before the racing even starts.

“You’ll never see stands like this at any other [rowing] event anywhere,” he says.

Eight years ago, Athens said the Olympic Games came home. But until the Olympics reintroduce chariot racing, Britain might have a stronger claim to the slogan. While the Winter Olympics emerged from the sporting festivals and traditions of turn-of-the-century Scandinavia, the Summer Olympics – and the Olympic movement that spawned them – truly trace their origins to England.

For many sports – rowing, fencing, equestrian, sailing, tennis, and soccer, to name a handful – the London Olympics mark a return to their roots. But more deeply, the core Olympic ideals of fair play, moral character, and sport’s capacity to make better men were first cultivated in the English boarding schools and universities of the 19th century.

“In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said at the opening ceremony. “This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified into clear rules and regulations. It was here that sport was included as an educational tool in the school curriculum.”

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