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At some point in the heritage conservation movement (memory serves it was during the nineteenth century, but I could be wrong) there was a significant change in the thinking around heritage ruins. Rather than being viewed as incomplete buildings, ravaged by decay, they were recast as romantic, enchanting, and haunting – a bit of a gothic dream, if you will. Of course, when visiting ruins today, they are still largely cast as romantic. One need only visit the ruins of an abbey, for example, to imagine that they are almost a set piece in a Jane Austin novel, with their manicured vegetation et al.
In any event, the meanings and aesthetics of ruins got me thinking about their application in sport heritage. Photos of contemporary abandoned or ruined places have become ubiquitous. One need not look that far for pictures of abandoned cinemas, libraries, and churches in places like Detroit. Seemingly these photos are meant as a kind of warning, a bit of a memento mori. Perhaps they can be read as a warning against faith in capitalism and the free market, or of globalization, or even of how everything – even the most grand and ornate places – can be abandoned and forgotten. And, yet, there is still an aesthetic beauty to them. They are a warning, for sure, but one feels drawn to them, and imagines what it might be like to walk through these places, to experience them, to live near them and create great art based on them.
Sport heritage, too, has its contemporary ruins and normally during the staging of mega events like the Olympics or World Cup, many photos of former venues – now abandoned and forgotten – become part of the social media landscape. This collection of photos, in particular, made its rounds through Twitterverse most recently. Indeed, there are warnings here too – about fallacy of sport event legacy (particularly when it comes to sports infrastructure), about the costs of staging a sporting event, and how sporting events are rarely ever panaceas in addressing larger socioeconomic issues – but, like those photos from Detroit, there’s also a beauty here. Indeed, the photos from places like Athens and Beijing are warnings – particularly given how recently these Olympics were staged, and how quickly these venues were mothballed. But, the ones from Sarajevo are very sad, given the post-Olympics history of that country. In any event, I am wondering how these places ought to be read, and how they fit into the broader history of heritage decay? Seemingly they share some history with their ancient and gothic cousins, but are they different because they are recent (both in construction and abandonment)? Are there broader issues here, too – about environmentalism, human conflict, or disposability of culture?
There are scales to heritage – not every heritage is of global importance. In fact, I’d argue the heritage we value most are those that are personal, intimate, and immediate. After all, it is blood that is our most innate form of heritage, and that our first and most powerful heritage experiences are with our families.
The playing and watching of sport, particularly with a parent, is often positioned as a kind of heritage experience. One text that rather wonderfully describes this process is Tom Stanton’s The Final Season. Ostensibly, it is about Stanton watching the Detroit Tigers during their final season at Tiger Stadium – a beloved ballpark that has since been demolished. So, in some respects, the book is about a more extrinsic heritage – that of the historic sports facility. However, the book is much more about an existential type of heritage, as it is about sharing and recalling his experiences with his own father at the stadium, as well as creating new memories with his own children while watching baseball during the final season at the park. In some ways, it is about our own mortality, and that places like stadiums are witnesses, conduits, and perhaps even warehouses for those shared family experience.
I think of this today as I recall the many evenings spent with my own father sporting events, particularly at Northlands Coliseum (nee: Rexall Place) watching the Edmonton Oilers hockey club. That stadium will soon be replaced and what I’ll miss most – and what I’ll consider heritage – are not the players, the banners, and the seats, but the many cold Canadian nights spent with my dad. Thankfully, we still watch games together – though, it is no where near as frequent since I moved – and I know when the inevitable happens, I’ll treasure those nights even more.
Now that I have my own son, I try to take him to as many games as I can. I’ve even started a collection of ticket stubs for him – his own sport heritage inventory, as it were. He’s still too young to take much of the games in, and I know that going to them is more for me than for him. Still, I hope he’ll look back on them fondly, as I do with my father.