Stumblebums and Princes: A Brief Observation about Nostalgia

I have, in some form or another, been encountering nostalgia for most of my professional and academic life.

For many years, I was a heritage/historical interpreter at a living history museum, which not only meant I spent a great deal of my time in period costume discussing (and, perhaps arrogantly, correcting) visitors’ impressions, recollections, and nostalgias about the “good old days,” but that, over time, I also developed a nostalgia for those years spent interpreting the past, forgetting that my dreams then were very much centred on having the career I do now.

In entering my doctoral studies, and later as a tenure-track faculty member with a keen interest in the sporting past, I spent many of my research hours learning about, dissecting, and confronting nostalgia.  Indeed, some of my earliest published pieces – and, it would seem, my most cited – deal with nostalgia and its shortcomings, particularly in sport.  I will admit, nostalgia and I have had a fractured relationship of sorts – I often time rail against it’s sepia-toneness, while also realizing (see: grudgingly acknowledging) that it may actually serve a purpose beyond its commercial exploitation.  As a middle-aged sports fan, with a limited athletic career well behind me and support for a vast array of teams that possess incredible pasts but woeful presents, I often become unwillingly nostalgic despite myself.  Indeed, having moved to several different places in my life, with my current locale feeling ever more permanent by the year, I do often get wistful for the simpler days of yore, even though I know my recollection is frequently misguided.

In any event, every so often I come across a quote or description about nostalgia that seems to encapsulate its essence; that gets to its heart, exposing both its fallacies and possibilities.  The other night, I began to read a book called The Stolen Season by David Lamb.  It was one of those “you might like to read” Amazon recommendations based on my previous purchases, and is a memoir of a former war correspondent – who required time, space, and some peace following his assignments – who travels across America watching minor league baseball games.  The Kindle price was $1.99, and the dozen or so reviews often referred to it as a baseball version of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, so I figured it was worth a look.  I’m not that far into it at this point – only a couple of chapters – but it is fantastic thus far.  Nevertheless, the prologue opens with the following observation about nostalgia:

Nostalgia is a dangerous obsession. It turns stumblebums into princes and dunghills into shining mountain peaks. It makes yesterday sweeter than tomorrow can ever be. But nostalgia is an expression of faith, because inherent in our embrace of the past is the belief that rediscovering the lost values of our youth will return us to simpler, more innocent days.

Beyond the fact that I find this quote infuriating, not because I disagree with it but rather because I am jealous of its simplicity and eloquence, it confirms that nostalgia is a mug’s game – one we know we can’t win, but are all too willing to play anyway.  Nostalgia is dangerous, because we can get lost in it, and it can dangerously skew our perspective about the present.  It can also be palliative, and help us to rediscover something about ourselves we thought lost.  Being nostalgic is also a sign of privilege; in that we have the leisure to remember, and we have a past we want to rediscover. And, nostalgia is complex and powerful, despite our (and, often, my) desire to pejoratively dismiss it.

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Hammer, Sickle, Puck, and Stick

I have long had a fascination with the Soviet Union and, in particular, Soviet sport.  As a child of the late Cold War period, I was certainly aware of the dominance of many Soviet teams and athletes.  They appeared disciplined, focused, and absolutely invincible.  As a Canadian and a dedicated hockey fan, I was made very aware – and, I believe, at a very young age – about the glorious Canadian victory over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. My knowledge of the Miracle on Ice came later, but by that time I knew that a victory over the Soviets was both very difficult and exceedingly rare. While the political and ideological aspects of Soviet versus US/Canada rivalries escaped me until much later, there was always something different about matches against the Soviet Union.  There have been few times I have been as nervous watching a sporting event as I did in 1987, as the NHL All Stars narrowly defeated the Soviets in a three game series, and any competition against the Soviets was something “special” – and, not always in the most pleasant of ways.

Still, there was always a deep respect for the Soviet teams and players that accompanied the fear of them. Many friends and family would tell me about the skill and abilities of Soviet players, even as they passionately rooted against them. As a goalie, I knew about Vladislav Tretiak even though, by the time he retired in 1984, I had only seen him play on a handful of occasions.  When I was a teenager, in fact, I got to attend a goaltending camp in Edmonton with Tretiak and, later as an undergraduate exchange student in Moscow in 1997, I got to meet with him for nearly two hours – which, to this day, is one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life.

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However, as much as there was an admiration of Soviet teams and players, they always seemed to be dismissed when it came to recognizing their impact, accomplishments, and legacy.  Only a handful of Soviet players and coaches are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, with some commentators – particularly in the Canadian sports media – dismissing the accomplishments of Soviet teams.  However, it appears that Soviet hockey is being looked at again, in large part because of two recent documentaries.

Both Red Army and Of Miracles and Men re-examine the development of Soviet hockey, looking at the players and people who made the Soviet team nearly invincible (For the record, I have not seen Red Army. Hopefully, it will be available here in South Carolina sometime later this year).  Of Miracles and Men, one of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentary series, does a magnificent job of humanizing Soviet players and understanding the major challenges they faced as individuals and as a team.  Perhaps more than that, it makes the viewer realize both how remarkable those Soviet teams were, but just how awful it was at times playing in the environment that many of them did – with unrelenting coaches, administrators, and political pressure.  From my vantage point, it is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series – and, it appears that it is available to watch on line for free for a limited time (seriously, it is fantastic!).

Perhaps one of the questions to ask, particularly from a heritage perspective, is why there is a renewed interest in Soviet hockey at this time?  Some of it may simply be that the passage of time has made revisiting this past contextually interesting, and that the archival material – not to mention the players – are more available than they were in the past.  We are nearly a quarter century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (has it really been that long?), and there may also be a sense of nostalgia for the team and the rivalries – and, perhaps even for the geopolitical certainty of a defined “enemy.” Perhaps some of it may be tied to material culture – seems that Soviet kitsch never goes out of style.  Maybe globalization plays a role, in that places like the Hockey Hall of Fame are welcoming more and more international visitors who wish to see their heritage represented. However, I think more than anything, there is a realization that hockey’s heritage narrative was simply incomplete; that, perhaps like talking about baseball’s history without mentioning the Negro Leagues, the Cold War era narrative in hockey was, at best, reductionist and, at worst, reviled.  We are a little more attuned (I hope) to jingoistic nationalism (certainly re-watching the 1972 Summit Series, I realized just what jackasses many of the Canadian player were) and that understanding the “enemy,” not as a faceless robot, but as a human being with hopes and dreams and aspirations might be a mark of our maturity.  In any event, it is wonderful to see that the Soviet hockey story is starting to be revealed, as the recognition of it is long overdue.

New Edited Book – Sport Heritage

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This week – February 5, to be precise – sees the release of Sport Heritage, a new edited book published by Routledge. From the description on the Routledge website:

Sport has become an important avenue in how we interpret, remember, and maintain our heritage. Whether it is being applied in tourism marketing and development, employed as a vehicle for social cohesion, or utilized as a way of articulating personal and collective identities, sport heritage is a vital topic in understanding what we value about the sporting past now, and what we wish to pass on to future generations. This edited collection brings together many new and exciting international approaches to sport heritage. Each of the chapters in this collection provides a thought-provoking sport heritage case study that would be of interest to students and researchers in history, geography, anthropology, and marketing, as well as industry practitioners working at sporting events, at sports-based heritage attractions such as museums and halls of fame, and at sports stadia and facilities. In addition, this collection would be of interest to those readers with a more general interest in sport heritage and the sporting past.

Here is the Table of Contents for the book:

1. Sport, heritage, and tourism – Gregory Ramshaw

2. It still goes on: football and the heritage of the Great War in Britain – Ross J. Wilson

3. Indigenous sport and heritage: Cherbourg’s Ration Shed Museum – Murray G. Phillips, Gary Osmond and Sandra Morgan

4. Identity in the “Road Racing Capital of the World”: heritage, geography and contested spaces – Ray Moore, Matthew Richardson and Claire Corkill

5. Heroes as heritage: the commoditization of sporting achievement – Sean J. Gammon

6. A Canterbury tale: imaginative genealogies and existential heritage tourism at the St. Lawrence Ground – Gregory Ramshaw

My strong recommendation, given the cost of the book, is to recommend that your university library purchase it.  There is a “recommend to the librarian” link on the Routledge webpage. Please also spread the word to anyone who may be interested in this collection.

Sport heritage research has come a long way in the past decade or so, and I strongly believe the work of the researchers in this book helps to take our understanding of this topic in new and fascinating directions.

Podcasts and Sport Heritage

In late 2014, following the overwhelming popular success of Serial, the wider world began to take notice of podcasts.  Although podcasts and podcasting are not new – they have been around for about a decade or more – it seems that there is a broad interest, or perhaps a renewed interest, in this medium.

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Though there are thousands of sport-based podcasts, I am not currently aware of any that are specifically focused on sport heritage.  I have considered creating a sport heritage podcast – we have a wonderful studio here at Clemson – and plan to put this on my to-do list for the coming year.  However, in the meantime, here is a list of sport podcasts that I feel at least touch-on aspects of sport heritage, sport and culture, and sport history.

Sporting Witness (BBC World Service) - An offshoot of the World Service’s excellent Witness podcast, this series specifically looks at first person narratives from the sporting past.  A great resource, and one that I have used often in my teaching.

Sportshour (BBC World Service) - Another World Service podcast, though more sociological and current events/topical than Sporting Witness, Sportshour examines some of the issues, debates, and topics that shape how sport is played, consumed and remembered.

Edge of Sports (Sirus XM Channel 92) - Like Sportshour, Edge of Sports is more sociological and current events-related, though decidedly more polemical. The show’s host, Dave Zirin, takes a very critical theory approach when discussing the social, economic, and political inequities of sport.  He’s a sports fan, but also realizes that his fandom is frequently fraught with hypocrisy, moral ambiguity, and injustice. This podcast is also one of the few sport history/sociology podcasts from the US, with decidedly US topics and points of view.

World Cricket Show – I’m not certain this podcast is necessarily sport heritage-related, though the hosts have a good sense of cricket’s past, especially in England. However, it is just plain fun.  The hosts, Adam Bayfield and Tony Curr, have a great rapport while discussing (and sometimes not discussing) the latest cricket news and matches. Frequently funny, always entertaining, and may even appeal to non or casual cricket supporters.

Sport and the British (BBC Radio 4) – This program is available in archive form – I believe it originally aired in 2012 – though it remains a great tool for revealing the history and current issues in sport.  Even though this podcast is specifically about sport history and development from a British perspective, so many of the foundations of contemporary sport are British that, at times, it is difficult to separate the national from the international when it comes to topics like globalization, broadcasting, and political uses of sport.  Again, a great teaching tool that I have used many times.

Fortunate Son

It goes without saying that the relationship between fathers and sons is a fundamental part of sport heritage.

Many of the foundational events and moments, often really the first sporting memories, involve fathers.  Fathers taking sons to games, to practice, teaching them to catch at ball, and so on.  There’s a reason why the final scene in Field of Dreams is so moving, because so many have had similar memories with their fathers.  Sport has a way of connecting fathers and sons.  Its a cliche, but some cliches have a way of being true as well.

I can’t remember a time when sport wasn’t a part of my relationship with my dad.  Some of my earliest memories – taking me to an Edmonton Oilers game, or to practice at the old Parkland arena, or, indeed, going down to the little park at the end of our block to have a catch – involve both sport and my dad.  Not all of the memories were pleasant, of course.  As the father of two goalies, my dad often had to know when best to let both my brother and I be to stew over a bad game or goal.  He never got on us for having a bad game.  I appreciated that.  When I stopped playing hockey, through a combination of ability and injury, my relationship with my dad changed.  Not badly, mind you, but it took some time for both of us to reconfigure, and to find some common ground again.  I’m sure it was tough for him to adjust, as it was tough for me to find what my post-athletics identity was going to be.  Thankfully, again, dad gave me the space to figure it out. I hope I’ll be able to do that with my son.

Living in a different city – a different country – I don’t get to see or talk to my dad as often as I once did.  I miss going to games with him, just sitting along the first base line or at the hashmarks of the faceoff dot, and just shooting the shit.  I miss that he can’t just pop around and tell his grandson all of the sports stories I’ve heard a thousand times.  I miss my dad.  Today is his birthday, and I just wanted to say that his guidance, influence, and love was the best legacy I could have received.

Thanks, Papi, and I love you.

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Sport Heritage in 2015

2014 was an interesting year in sport heritage.  The ways in which the sporting past is used today seemed to garner a fair amount of public interest.  This was particularly the case with the anniversary of the First World War and how sport became one of the primary avenues of public remembrance.  Debates continued as to the content of sport heritage, particularly in the US as to how controversial pasts – particularly in baseball – ought to be recognized  It was also exciting to see the organization of the first National Sporting Heritage Day in the UK, and I am pleased to see that sport heritage will again be celebrated on September 30 of this year.  There was also plenty of great sport heritage research published, highlighted by the special sport heritage issue of the Journal of Heritage Tourism.

As for 2015, there appear to be the continuation of certain trends from the previous year, as well as sport heritage going in some new and exciting directions:

Commemoration – It seems likely that sport heritage will continue to be used in commemorations of particular anniversaries and events.  Many First World War commemorations continue, and though it seems unlikely that there will be as many public events as in 2014 for the centenary, it would seem likely that the sporting arena may continue to be the vehicle for remembrance.  Similarly, with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War this year, it will be interesting to see if sport is used in these commemorations.  Also, in any given sport there are numerous anniversaries of famous events, athletes, and moments which, undoubtedly, will be recognized.

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Commodification – The commodification of the sporting past would seem to continue in 2015, as heritage remains a strong, saleable good for sports franchises and leagues.  Heritage-based sporting events continue, and continue to be popular (such as with the numerous outdoor hockey games throughout North America and Europe), historic “moments” can be planned in advance along with various forms of memorabilia (Derek Jeter’s retirement from the New York Yankees in 2014 showed how lucrative this practice can be), and the perceived stability of the past – particularly when compared with the unpredictable present and unknowable future – seems to draw our attention and precious (and finite) leisure time.

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Politics – 2014 witnessed a transformation of sorts for sport heritage, from a benign “ye olde tyme” nostalgia trip to a tool of political and social change.  The fight over sport heritage space – and, indeed, what heritage space looks like – took a decidedly political turn in London in 2013 and 2014 during the fight over the Southbank Skatepark. The “I Can’t Breathe” movement, particularly in the NBA, cited John Carlos and the 1968 Olympic protests as inspiration.  No doubt more globally integrated networks mean that different people from different backgrounds will lay claim to different sport heritages, and it seems likely that what sport heritage is – and who gets to shape it and speak on its behalf – will continue to evolve.

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Me, Lee, and Stories as Sport Heritage

Sport heritage, like most any form of heritage, has many ingredients.  One of the more important aspects are personal memories, where we contextualize our own recollections in terms of broader contexts.  Sometimes this takes the role of a “where were you?” during an important event or moment, but often it is on a much smaller scale, where the heritage is much more at the family or community level.

In any event, a few months back the folks at the Edmonton City as Museum Project (ECAMP) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada asked me to contribute a submission to their website. ECAMP’s role, at present, is to act as a repository for the city’s intangible heritage – the histories, stories, memories, and lore that tell the city’s story – from the infamous to the intimate. I was born and raised in Edmonton and, as such, they felt I might be able to add something sport-based to their collection, particularly as I have been away from the city for a number of years.  Edmonton’s sporting heritage is vast, covering many different sports, athletes, and events throughout its history.  Some of this history, particularly those from the late 1970s through early 2000s are a part of my own story and heritage as well.  And, though I thought about doing a “where were you?” piece – or even a more objective heritage “moment” (such as recapping and recalling particularly famous sporting moments or events), I elected to go with the more community level heritage, and perhaps capture a time when the gulf between professional athletes and working class families wasn’t great at all.

My story, called Me and Lee, is unabashedly sentimental and, as a few former classmates have reminded me, may have happened differently or perhaps not even at all.  I have a strong memory of this particular piece of community lore and my reaction to it and, as a good friend reminded me, memory isn’t subject to facts (nor, often, is heritage).

If you would like to have a read (ECAMP’s website is open access and does not require subscription), please click the link here.

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