By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - As top athletes gain followers ahead of the London Olympics, another elite group starring at the Games is also rising in popularity - Britain's royal family - following a tradition for the Olympics to strengthen bonds between royalty and the people.
Queen Elizabeth, who is enjoying her highest level of public satisfaction in 20 years following her Diamond Jubilee celebrations this month, will open the Olympics on July 27 and her equestrian granddaughter, Zara Phillips, is competing.
Phillips, 31, is only the second British royal to compete at an Olympics and follows in the footsteps of her mother, Princess Anne, who rode for Britain at the 1976 Montreal Games. Her father, Captain Mark Phillips, also competed twice for Britain.
While royalty is not usually associated with international sporting competitions, the list of royals competing and involved with the Olympics over the past century is long. Currently 12 of 105 members on the International Olympic Committee are royal.
Royal and sports historians said the tradition for royals and heads of state to play a part dated back to Athens in 1896 when the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, ensured the aristocracy was involved to give the event prestige and credibility.
"Since the start of the modern Olympics, most heads of state have made a big deal about being seen at the Olympics," Martin Polley, an Olympic historian and senior lecturer in sport at Southampton University, told Reuters.
"Democracies, dictatorships and monarchies like to be on display. The Olympics gives the king, queen and other members of royal families the chance to be seen sharing the same activities as everyone else and coming together as a nation - although there is still a clear demarcation in roles."
SPORTS OF KINGS
Phillips may only be the second British royal to compete but she is the latest in a line of royals at the Olympics where horse-riding and sailing have proven to be the sports of kings.
The first royal competitors emerged in 1900 in Paris.
Australian sport scientist Rob Wood, who runs the website topendsports.com, said his research found the first royal competitors were Count Hermann Alexandre de Pourtales, from an old Huguenot family of Switzerland, who won gold and silver medals in sailing with his wife, Countess Helene de Pourtales, in his crew. She was one of the first women Olympians and female medalists.
Greece's Count Alexander Mercati competed in golf in 1900.
At Stockholm in 1912, Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia, a German prince, won bronze in a team horse jumping and Russia's Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich also competed in equestrian.
Norway's Crown Prince Olav, who became king in 1957, won gold in sailing at the 1928 Amsterdam Games while his son, King Harald from 1991, sailed for Norway in 1964, 1968 and 1972.
Constantine II of Greece competed as Crown Prince Constantine at the Rome Games in 1960, winning a gold medal. He was king from 1964 until the Greek monarchy was abolished in 1973.
His sister, now Queen Sofia of Spain, sailed for Greece in the 1960 Olympics while her husband Juan Carlos, King of Spain, sailed for Spain in 1972, three years before becoming king.
Their daughter, Infanta Cristina, sailed for Spain at the 1988 Seoul Games while their son, Crown Prince Felipe, represented Spain in Barcelona in 1992, again in sailing.
Princess Haya of Jordan rode at Sydney in 2000.
Denmark's Princess Nathalie of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg was in team dressage at Beijing 2008, winning bronze, while Saudi Arabia's Prince Faisal Alshalan and Prince Abdullah Bin Miteb also competed in equestrian.
The most notable royal in the Winter Games is Prince Albert of Monaco, an IOC member since 1985, who is a five-time winter Olympian in bob-sledding.
"Some sports, like equestrian and sailing, do have a number of royal aficionados and there has been a quite number of royal competitors but not many royal medalists," said Carolyn Harris, a royal historian with a PhD from Queen's University, Canada.
"But sport is something the younger royals have always shown interest in and promoted and we are seeing this with the British royals now, particularly Prince William, Kate and Prince Harry."
Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of sports PR agency ENS Ltd, said Olympic involvement could only add to the rising popularity of the British royal family whose efforts to "rebrand" and put an emphasis on younger royals is paying off.
A Ipsos Mori poll this month found 90 percent of people were pleased with the Queen's work compared to 75 percent in 1992, the Queen's famous "annus horribilis" when two royal marriages broke down, including that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, one royal marriage ended in divorce, and a fire destroyed large sections of Windor Castle.
This satisfaction level fell to 66 percent in 1998, the year after Princess Diana's death in a car crash in Paris.
"The Olympics is something they can do that is apolitical," Hopkins told Reuters. "With Zara Phillip competing as well, it is a good story for the royal family."
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)