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Is it sport heritage? The challenge of ancient and medieval sport


Defining what necessarily qualifies as “sport” is as old as the institution of sport. Huw Richards, in his 2007 book about the history of rugby union, argues that a sport – in essence – is “born” when its rules are codified and played by others in different locations using those same rules. Tom Hinch and James Higham, in defining sport within tourism, define sport as having clearly defined rules, uncertain outcomes, competitive and contest based, playful or incorporating a sense of play, and physical or kinaesthetic in nature. Certainly, many a barstool argument has been waged over whether auto racing or poker or professional wrestling is a sport. Seemingly, discourse also plays a role. If something is called sport, and perhaps is covered by sports media, does it then become sport?

However, what do we make of “sport” from ancient or medieval worlds. Could we call cock fighting, bear bating, and chariot racing, types of sports – and, for the purposes and scope of this blog – sport heritage? Do they fit more into forms of leisure and recreation heritage rather than sport, considered in a similar vein to other forms of gaming such as dice?


Delineating what is – and, perhaps, is not – sport heritage is a challenge. Much of what is included in ancient and medieval sport most likely would have had an understood – if highly localized – set of rules, and certainly would have had a clearly defined winner and loser. That said, its not as if there were governing bodies per se for these practices, and it would seem that the rules would vary from place to place – so codification and transferability may be in question. Similarly, the fact that many also include animals – often in life or death situations – it is a wonder whether one could call, for example, bear bating a form of play (particularly for the bear) or if the participants had any agency in their participation. That said, the discursive use and practice of both sport heritage – in particular heritage researchers, promoters, and agencies – must give us pause for thought. Two medieval sport places in London, Cockpit Steps and Bear Gardens, are listed in Simon Inglis’ Played in London book – which is part of the English Heritage sport heritage project, Played in BritainSimilarly, the British Museum offers tours of “Sport in the Ancient World” specifically curating part of their collection as sport-based. While much of what we consider as sport heritage comes from the last two centuries, in large part because of codification, governance, and transferability, anything before this period raises questions about what we ought to include – or ignore – in our study and understanding of sport heritage.



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