One 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 “living” sport heritage – particularly after their playing careers have finished. However, unlike other types of artefacts, we cannot “preserve” them – though their achievements may become mythological and heroic over time. On the other hand, some heritage sites – such as Olympic museums – provide an opportunity for visitors to gaze upon the training of contemporary athletes, positioning the “athlete artefact” through more of a zoological lens.
A recent trip to Kentucky shed further light on this idea of the athlete artefact, in particular the opportunities to view, and even touch, former thoroughbred racehorses. Animals offer a different view of the athlete artefact. Human athletes, in most cases, position themselves as “living legends” after their careers end, perhaps by participating in exhibition matches, so-called “Champions” tournaments, and through autograph and memorabilia sales. Similarly, athletes who are on public view during their training sessions have some agency in terms of where and when they train, as well as whether to continue as an elite athlete. Animal athletes have no such agency and, as such, at places like the Kentucky Horse Park where viewing and interacting with past champion horses – including Kentucky Derby winners – are part of the visitation experience, there is a very direct zoological comparison. However, unlike a zoo, visitors aren’t coming to the Horse Park simply to view random horses – although, there are representations of different breeds at the site – they are there to actually see famous horses such as 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champions like Funny Cide.
Part of the narrative of these horses is not only their races and victories, but also their lineage. Which champion horses are they related to, or who did they sire or dam, is an important part of their heritage narrative – both literally as well as contextually. The parentage, as well as the children, of human athlete artefacts normally only warrant a mention as part of biography rather than some sort of genetic destiny.
Horses also reveal something different about the life cycle, as well as the meaning, of the athlete artefact. For the human athlete artefact, there is the playing career, followed by perhaps the coaching and exhibition playing career, frequenting the autograph circuit, and then, perhaps, closing out with speaking engagements and the like after the body is no longer willing to, say, run around a tennis court anymore. For the animal athlete artefact, places like the Kentucky Horse Park (and, to a lesser extent, the Kentucky Derby Museum) are the culmination of a career largely built on racing and breeding. In many respects, the champion horses at the Kentucky Horse Park and the like are simply there to be admired, perhaps as physical specimens but as much simply for being what they are. They exist, like other rare heritage objects and artefacts, in order to simply exist, because they are rare, and because they are beautiful. As such, though most athlete artefacts are quite different than other forms of heritage objects, in the case of these kinds of horses they are, in fact, remarkably similar to a traditional heritage artefact. Perhaps this is because they do not have agency and that they are considered, in essence, simply objects. However, the fact that visitors can actually see, interact, watch, and admire these champions – and the fact that they are worthy of preservation after their “usefulness” is over – provides a very different perspective on the athlete artefact.