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Liverpool’s Sport Heritage

The city of Liverpool has numerous heritage-based claims to fame.  It’s role in immigration, shipping, and transportation is well known.  Of course, it is also home to the most famous band of all time, The Beatles.  However, it is also a major centre for sport heritage – and, as a recent trip to Merseyside revealed – the city’s sporting past is well represented through museums, tours, and other heritage-based experiences.

Of course, Liverpool’s sport heritage begins – most notably and publicly – with the city’s football teams.  Liverpool FC is, far and away, the most broadly and widely represented – at least in the tourist areas in the city centre and at the Albert Dock.  In fact, there is a dedicated hop on/off Liverpool FC tour bus that runs between the Albert Dock and the team’s home stadium, Anfield.

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The bus runs all day (with the team’s famous anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, blaring from the bus’ speakers). En route to Anfield, the guide provides a thirty minute commentary about the team’s background, as well as it’s historical connections and rivalry with Everton, before arriving at the gates of Anfield.

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In speaking with our guide, Paul, he mentioned that the tour bus has been running for a little over a year and has been immensely successful.  Specifically, he noted that the bus was initally only going to run during the summer peak tourist season, but that demand pushed it to a year-round venture.  It should be noted that my colleague and I were the only patrons on the bus during our tour, though Paul mentioned that this was quite unusual.  He did say, however, that as Anfield was undergoing extensive renovations, the stadium tours were somewhat limited and they did notice a dip in visitors this summer.  That said, Liverpool boasts over 500 million global supporters and, as such, there seems to be the potential for a steady supply of sport-based pilgrims.  It is also fascinating – and, as far as I know, unique – to have a city tour and tour company dedicated to a specific sport club.  Indeed, this appears to signal a growing demand – at least in certain places – for sport heritage experiences and particular forms of heritage sport tourism.  Places like Anfield appear to be able to welcome a variety of visitors who wish to “make a day” out of experiencing the club’s heritage and culture.  Arriving at the stadium, tourists could take a standard stadium tour, a tour with an ex-player (demonstrating the links that both myself and Sean Gammon of the University of Central Lancashire have explored linking sport heritage to “living” artefacts like ex-athletes), as well as visit the team museum, take their picture next to several team statues and plaques, visit a large team shop, and dine at a team-themed restaurant (complete with team and player artefacts adorning the walls).

Just across Stanley Park from Anfield resides Goodison Park, home of Everton FC.  Although the two squads compete in the same league, and the stadiums reside steps from one another, they feel like a world away – at least in terms of touristic support.  Everton feels like a local club, whereas Liverpool appears to have much larger global ambitions.  Similarly, a tourist could spend much of a day at Anfield, whereas Goodison Park did not offer a stadium tour and had a small shop across the road .  In fact, my colleague and I appeared to be the only people visiting the stadium.  That said, there is still a very prominent representation of the club’s history and heritage around the stadium.  For example, the entire circumference of the stadium is ringed with  a club timeline, highlighting the club’s major victories, players, and accomplishments.

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The main gates to Goodison Park also featured a statue of Everton’s greatest and most beloved player, Dixie Dean.

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While the heritage experience at Everton was much more muted, and less public, that at Liverpool, there was a strong appeal to it as well.  In many respects, it was a heritage for the faithful; for people who already loved and supported the club, rather than as primarily a commodity for a large international fan base.  As complicated as this word is, it felt more real and, in that I suppose, that give it a greater sense of authenticity.

The importance of both Liverpool and Everton football clubs are also prominent in the Museum of Liverpool’s popular culture gallery. In particular, the events of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 Liverpool supporters were killed at a match in Sheffield in 1989, are described and commemorated in the gallery, and specifically how the two local rival clubs came together in remembrance.

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However, the gallery represents much more than football, demonstrating the variety of different sports, pastimes, and athletes that make up the city’s sporting heritage.  From horse racing, to athletics, to boxing, the gallery shows just how many different sports are “played in Liverpool.”

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Indeed, one of the surprising elements of the gallery are the variety of different sports played in Liverpool and how they have shaped different parts of the city.  Perhaps most surprising is that the city has a significant baseball heritage stretching back several generations.

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Many cities seem to hide their sport heritage, or don’t actively represent or promote it, perhaps viewing it as less serious than other cultural markers. However, Liverpool is a perfect example of how sport cultures can be embraced, and exist beside – and even enhance – other heritage attractions.  Indeed, having the Liverpool FC bus or the city museum’s popular culture gallery displayed next to Beatles exhibits, or contemporary arts galleries, or a slavery museum simply demonstrates the broad heritage palate of the community.  Tourists and locals can be both interested in a Jackson Pollock exhibition AND maritime heritage AND architecture AND sport.  Liverpool is a great example how these different topics can co-exist in telling the stories of a community, and other cities should look to their example to see how this can be accomplished.

Anticipatory Sport Heritage

Back in November 2003, when I was working on what was to become a major section of my doctoral dissertation, I saw a poll on the Edmonton Oilers website about the Heritage Classic that struck me as a little odd.  The poll asked respondents something to the effect of “Where will the Heritage Classic place in the history of the National Hockey League?” The multiple choice responses ranged from “most historic even ever” to “not very historic” or something of the like.  The strange aspect was that, at the time of the poll, the Heritage Classic was still weeks away from happening so, of course, it was impossible to assess the event’s historical significance (and, as it turned out, took over a decade until it’s legacy could be examined.)

I was thinking about that poll and our predilection – particularly in sport – to anticipate the legacy of a particular event before it has happened as I scrolled through the coverage of this weekend’s heavily anticipated Mayweather versus Pacquiao boxing match.  The fight was built-up as the Match of the Century, with many anticipating that it might be the most important boxing match in history.  Certainly, the amount paid by spectators and pay-per-view viewers suggests that much of the appeal of the fight was to see “history made.” HBO’s pre-fight coverage, to their credit, did attempt to separate the different “histories” from one another, arguing that the fight would be historic in terms of its revenue, as well as the fact it was the first major match of the social media era, but that it was far too soon to assess its historical importance, both within the sport itself or within a broader social, cultural, and political context (a-la the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle“). Their assessment – at least as far as the different histories are concerned – reflects the “heritage of sport” and “sport as heritage” argument Sean Gammon and I made in our “More than just nostalgia” article, specifically that some sport heritages are self-contained within the sport themselves while others transcend the sport and become part of a wider cultural heritage.

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In any event, the idea of anticipating what the history, or legacy, of an event might be may not be a recent phenomenon, but perhaps it is simply a part of our rapid consumption of culture – that we expect we can assess the cultural and historical worth of something either beforehand or immediately after (as some have done mere hours after the fight). Again going back to my doctoral years, I recall reading Arthur Danto’s Narration and Knowledge as part of a Philosophy of History course and remembering his thoughts about how we talk about the past, specifically that time and distance are required to assess the importance of an event and that we, while living in another era’s history, cannot possibly understand what is and is not of “historical” value.  Mayweather versus Pacquiao may very well fit the moniker of “Fight of the Century” and it may reveal something about the social, cultural, and political context of 2015. Or it may mean nothing.  We may simply have to wait to find out.

Literary Sport Heritage

A number of years ago – over a few beers, of course – a late colleague and I sketched out a reading list of popular sports books, thinking we might one day co-teach a class that explored the different iterations of this literature.  We grouped the books under various descriptive categories, most of which had a more socio-cultural bent – for example, the fan memoir (Fever Pitch – Hornby), race (Beyond a Boundary – James), the “warts & all” athlete memoir (Open Agassi), labour relations (Well Paid Slave – Snyder), cult of positivism/objectivism (Moneyball – Lewis), expose (The Fix – Hill), and so on.   Unfortunately we never did get to teach our class, but that conversation – and our list – came to mind recently when thinking about the connection between literature and sport, and the idea that certain sports or sporting practices are considered to have a significant literary heritage.

I suppose part of this though was inspired by my following of the Ashes, and that much of what I have learned about cricket in recent years has not come from watching the sport but by reading about it.  Despite living in an age of media mobilities, cricket is one of those sports that is still relatively difficult to find (both live and on television) in North America – thus, my own fandom has been built both by the significant number of tomes written about the sport as well as outlets like The Guardian’s Over-by-Over commentary which often exhibits a literary flare. Certainly, cricket is one of those sports – perhaps along with baseball – that has inspired a vast amount of literature.  In fact, this weekend’s Cricket Writers Podcast talked about this very thing, noting that it is because of time, the pauses in action, and the (often) leisurely pace that cricket lends itself to literature.  Similar arguments have been made for baseball as well – that other sports like basketball and hockey are too frantic to inspire poetry – though I would argue that it is as much because cricket and baseball are summer sports, and that the pace of summer leisure often matches the rhythm of these sports is part of the reason they have inspired so many to put pen to paper. I suppose it is also that, in those cold winter months, reading about summers past and leisurely days to come is very appealing.  In my own experience, I read about baseball far more in January than July.  

Still, I wonder why it is that other sports are not known for their literary heritage in the same way that cricket and baseball are.  Most sports have popular literature “classics” – and sports like soccer/football are certainly not lacking in volumes of written material.  Maybe it has to do with who watches these sports – after all, it appears that authors seem to be attracted to baseball and cricket more than other sports (a point made in the aforementioned Cricket Writers podcast). Maybe the term heritage or literature is considered high-brow, and therefore only applicable to certain sports? Still, there are other sports – boxing comes to mind – that certainly can’t be considered leisurely and have a recognizable literary heritage (and, again, seem to attract literary-types).