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Cotswolds Olimpicks: Shin-kicking at the 'other' Games

By Neil Curry, CNN
updated 4:14 PM EDT, Sat June 9, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The London 2012 Olympic Games start in 50 days
  • The Cotswold Olimpicks are an ancient event which dates back to 1612
  • Shin-kicking is the main event at the Olimpicks, which take place in England
  • The sport is much the same as it was when it was first competed 400 years ago

(CNN) -- There are just 50 days to go until the Olympic Games begin in London, but for some people the pinnacle of the sporting year arrived last week in the Cotswolds -- one of England's most picturesque locations.

Shin-kicking is not counted as one of the 36 Olympics sports, but it is a key event at Robert Dover's "Cotswold Olimpicks"" -- an ancient event which is 400 years old in 2012.

James Wiseman was a shin-kicker. He wears a benevolent smile framed by a beard in the style of a 17th century yeoman. He's dressed accordingly in a baggy-sleeved shirt and breeches, but he also has a darker side.

Having reached the Mount Olympus of shin-kicking -- a place in the Olimpick final -- he fell short of the summit and he retired from competition to become an Olimpick judge.

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"Shin-kicking is probably the blue riband event and I'm probably biased because I judge it but it is the sport that people come to see," Wiseman told CNN.

And they come to see it in their thousands, as they have done for four centuries. The Cotswold Olimpicks takes place on a hillside above the Gloucestershire town of Chipping Campden, whose honey-colored stone houses and thatched cottages contribute to its reputation as one of the most sought-after residences in England.

The event was the idea of a lawyer, Dover, who received the blessing of King James I to transform an existing whitsun fair into a series of games modeled on the old Olympian ideal of strength and endeavor.

Ancient events like the tug-of-war and standing jump made it into early editions of the modern Olympics. Shin-kicking did not.

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"Shin-kicking, certainly in the way we do it today, is very little changed from the way they did it in 1612," says Wiseman.

"In those days they probably wouldn't have called it shin-kicking they would have called it 'Cotswold wrestling' but the rules were so loose that the only things you couldn't do was gouge or bite, so everything else was allowed and shin-kicking was a natural way to weaken your opponent."

Shin-kicking, certainly in the way we do it today, is very little changed from the way they did it in 1612
James Wiseman

Shin-kicker Ben Greenall knows all the right moves to weaken an opponent. He has shin-kicking in his blood and I suspect the blood of several opponents' shins on his boots. His dad is Chairman of the Olimpicks and his family is steeped in the history of the sport..

"Well it all started because you've got the lowlands down there and us high-men up here and you would come to the middle to sort out the differences between yourselves and because you didn't want it to become too bad they agreed on this form of wrestling where basically in them days it was the first man to get a broken leg was the loser."

As Greenall continues I wonder just what might constitute "too bad."

"It got pretty brutal in those days as well, steel toecaps were allowed and the lads used to beat their legs with wooden mallets to toughen up the bone and skin and all the muscle." Greenall explains to what extent the sport has changed since then.

"Well we banned the steel toe-caps so basically we do it now till the man is tripped over. I think broken legs were a common occurrence and some nasty injuries, whereas, although we have some nasty injuries we very rarely have broken bones."

Another sop to the soft-hearted 21st-century modern man is the option of using straw to pad your socks and hopefully cushion the blows. Greenall forgoes such pampering and opts for the bare-skin shin of the extreme kicker.

It got pretty brutal ... steel toecaps were allowed and the lads used to beat their legs with wooden mallets
Ben Greenall

Choosing ridicule over raw pain I stuff my socks with handfuls -- "wodges" as they are known in the sport -- of scratchy straw until my lower limbs resemble bloated woolly sausages. But Greenall is about to light the barbecue and I'm destined for the grill.

Before I rise to the challenge Wiseman chips in with a bit of advice.

"The main key ingredient you need to be a successful shin-kicker is surprisingly not strong shins but stamina. So you need a good sense of balance, you need stamina and you need to be able to land a few good kicks as well."

Encouraged by this information I ask: "What are your legs like the next day?"

The answer is less encouraging.

"They're very, very painful. In fact it's not just the first day. The first time I did it, it was six months before they stopped being painful."

Hmmm.

"Don't worry, I'll go easy on you," says a grinning Greenall. "But first you've got to put on your shepherd's smock. We're in sheep country, so originally it was all shepherds who fought."

I haul the unflattering brown garment over my head and Greenall grabs me by the shoulders ready to begin his masterclass.

Desperate to delay the inevitable defeat, I say: "Wait...let's talk a little bit about technique."

My opponent smiles again: "Not much -- attack and block, hack and slash, no headbutts and we shake hands at the end."

The first time I did it, it was six months before they stopped being painful
Ben Greenall

We followed that script pretty much to the letter and I lasted barely 30 seconds before being sent tumbling head over heels.

As I watched the real competition get underway, I realized that Greenall the Gentle Giant really had been easy on me. Booted battles were greeted with great cheers from the crowd. Some bouts lasted a draining ten minutes, others barely seconds as a hefty hoof brought down another pretender to the throne.

But as 1980s action film Highlander tells us, there can be only one and when Olimpicks (rather than Olympics) are discussed in these parts, neither Usain Bolt nor Michael Phelps will be the name spoken in terms of the highest reverence.

It is the name of Zac Warren, a 23-year-old stone mason from the neighboring county of Worcestershire.

It is he who, on the 400th anniversary of the Cotswold Olimpicks, bears the title of Champion Shin-Kicker.

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