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Athletes and the Paradox of Sport Heritage

On Friday evening, I will be going to Turner Field in Atlanta (the former Olympic Stadium which will close at the end of this season) to watch the Atlanta Braves take on the Miami Marlins. Though there are several reasons for going to this game in particular – perhaps, in part, connecting a summer leisure activity to a kind-of American traditionalism and nationalism, not to mention the fact that though I dislike the Braves immensely, I like the Marlins…and I love attending live baseball games in the middle of summer – one of my main considerations is seeing Ichiro Suzuki play one final time before he, likely, retires at the end of the season.

Ichiro+Suzuki+San+Diego+Padres+v+Miami+Marlins+8YdyF9qNe25l

Ichiro was, in many respects, baseball’s first global superstar, having established himself in Japanese baseball before joining the Seattle Mariners in his late 20s. Recently, his combined professional hits total topped that of Pete Rose – and though there is some controversy as to whether his Japanese career “counts,” there is little doubt that Ichiro changed the game of baseball, both through his playing ability and through his global reach. He is certainly a first-ballot Hall of Fame player, and arguably one of the best baseball players of all time.

I first saw Ichiro play live in Seattle in 2006. I took a seat in right field – Ichiro’s then position – and was surrounded by fans from Japan, all there to see him play. In fact, much of the in-stadium signage – as well as many of the on-field advertisements – were in both English and Japanese, suggesting just how much of a magnet Ichiro was for fans overseas. Friday’s game will be my third time seeing Ichiro (the other was a mid-April Braves-Marlins game last season), and though I don’t expect to see the same reaction as I experience in 2006, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t a few fans there who, like me, want to see him play one last time.

In many ways, my desire to see Ichiro play reflects on our understandings of sport heritage, namely that athletes represent a kind-of “living” artefact or heritage object. Sean Gammon, in his 2014 paper “Heroes as Heritage“, argues that athletes represent a type of dual sport heritage, in that they themselves are living heritage objects and that their accomplishments and feats represent a type of intangible heritage. I wrote, in response to Gammon’s paper, that

The heroes and the sporting moments they create then, as Gammon argues, become artefacts, and though we can relive and replay the achievement (and, in a sense, preserve the moment(s) in time, perhaps through both personal memory and vicariously through media) we cannot preserve “the object” in the same way that we might other forms of tangible heritage. The relationship between the achievement and the athlete, in fact, demonstrates a paradox in sport heritage. Athletes age, change, and are no longer what they were – indeed, athletes are some of the few heritage “objects” that are not aided by the patina of age. However, their achievements may become more glorious – or heroic – as time goes on. 

Ichiro is certainly not the player he once was, and though he’s had a bit of a renaissance as of late, at 42 years of age he now a fourth outfielder (essentially filling in from time to time from starting players) and is battling well down the line-up (as he often strikes out more than he puts a ball in play these days). But, I am not going to see Ichiro as he is now – I am creating anticipatory heritage for myself (the “tell my grandkids about” moment), and celebrating his past achievements – making them, and he, more glorious and heroic as we are farther removed from them.


1 Comment

  1. […] of the topics in sport heritage research that has received some attention over the years (including on this blog) is the idea of the athlete artefact. That is to say, many athletes could be considered a form of […]

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