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Health and Sport Heritage

Heritage is used for a variety of contemporary needs and circumstances.  As we know from Critical Heritage Studies, heritage is used in legitimizing and underwriting particular claims from particular groups about who gets to speak for and about the past, and to what end. Heritage is also a major part of education, of identity creation and maintenance, and of nationalism. We also know that heritage is used in tourism development, particularly in building, growing, and diversifying the attraction mix at a particular tourism location or destination.  Similarly, we know that heritage is something tourists seek when on vacation; that many – if not most – leisure tourists encounter heritage at some point during their trip. We also know that heritage is vital in terms of urban planning, that heritage areas and districts can be good for attracting and retaining businesses and people to a city, and that built heritage can provide diverse and interesting architectural styles to communities.

What has been relatively late to come, though is picking up tremendous steam, is linking heritage – and, for our purposes, sport heritage – to health and health care issues.

English Heritage just released a report that suggests that “heritage makes you happy,” noting that participation in heritage – either as a visitor or volunteer – boosts self-esteem, life satisfaction, and general well-being to a greater level than participating in similar leisure and recreational activities.  There are a few interesting things to note about this kind of report.  Obviously, from a critical heritage perspective, there are few more divisive topics than heritage, although encountering heritage can also potentially be a bridge between people and cultures. I think it is interesting as well that English Heritage commissioned this report, as it suggest that heritage must now “do” something beyond a) exist, and b) generate tourism dollars.  However, I am not against commissioning such a report, nor its findings.  If we can demonstrate that heritage, in general, is beneficial to the health of individuals and communities, it may also generate greater public support.  An interesting question is whether the topic of the heritage matters in terms of obtaining these health benefits.  That is to say, does it matter whether one is visiting or volunteering at a house museum, or an art gallery, or a castle? From a sport heritage perspective, representations of the sporting past – particularly in museums and halls of fame – are typically very hands on, reflecting not only the nature of sporting heritage but also because hands-on displays may address particular operational outcomes for the museum.  Perhaps there are health benefits – both in situ and afterwards – from these displays? More than this, however, sport heritage – both to its benefit and detriment – is particularly positive, often inspirational, and generates its fair share of collective cultural moments.  It would be fascinating to test whether sport heritage, in particular, “makes you happy.”

However, sport heritage’s primary use appears to be healthcare, at least at this point in time. Peter King in his Monday Morning Quarterback column, discusses the latest – and largest – addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and its not a new wing to house trophies or memorabilia.  Rather, the Hall of Fame will be building an addition called “Legends Landing” – a residential facility for former NFL players, particularly those with medical issues and who can’t afford treatment.  From King’s article:

The concept is one that’s been floating around with some league leaders for some time: a central place for medical and physical assistance for needy players, and housing for former players who need a hand. With the Hall of Fame running more and more educational programs for local schools—and research projects on the history of the game and future health of the game and its players—imagine the benefit of having scores of former players on campus as resource people.

I’m told that the type of facility the Hall wants would cost around $75 million and serve upwards of 500 players a year. With brain trauma and other long-term health issues so prevalent, it’s past time the league’s owners follow Benson’s lead and help fund a facility where, as Benson says, the legends can land.

From a sport heritage perspective, this development offers some interesting pieces.  Firstly, it positions the Hall of Fame as a multi-use facility beyond its touristic/events purpose.  Secondly, it posits the “legends” that live at a facility as a kind-of heritage resource, a kind-of “living sport heritage.”  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by placing this facility at the Hall of Fame, it somewhat acknowledges that the sport has some negative legacies – including the the long term health impacts of playing a violent sport. It is a very interesting development, one that deserves some investigation.


(The new Pro Football Hall of Fame “village” – including the Legends Landing facility.)

Sport heritage and the sporting past are also being used in healthcare, to great fanfare and success, by the Sporting Memories Network in the UK.  The Network was “established to promote and develop the use of sporting memories to improve the well-being of older people and to help tackle dementia, depression and social isolation.” The Network uses something called Reminiscence Therapy, though as strange as it seems, they mention that sport was rarely used in this kind of therapy.  Furthermore, in speaking with some of my Recreational Therapy colleagues, men are often overlooked in Reminiscence Therapy programs, so sport heritage offers a very strong emotional vehicle to serve an underserved group.

I suppose the point is that, perhaps, we in sport heritage have to consider a wider utility for the sporting past.  This is not to suggest that we abandon our critical heritage work, or that there isn’t room for sport heritage in education, tourism development, urban planning, and conservation.  Rather, perhaps we ought to consider more how sport heritage might be employed in tackling broader issues such as health and wellbeing.

Subaltern Heritage and Leisure: The Southbank Skatepark

Heritage is one of those processes that is normally top-down.  In other words, what “the heritage” is often comes from the social, cultural, or political elite who prescribe what is/is not worthy of protection, conservation, funding.  However, in the past generation or so, there have been wider forms of representation of heritage – some of which have come from oppositional groups.  In other words, heritage can be a process by which meaning can be enforced on a group, but heritage can also be used as a form of resistance to these meanings.  Sometimes this binary exists – the elite forcing their views on the masses, and the masses resisting by creating and enshrining their own heritage – though, recently, it seems how (and who) uses heritage and for what ends doesn’t necessarily follow this script.

Which leads me to the curious case of the Southbank Skatepark.  If you have every visited (or live) in London, you know that the skatepark is a rather noticeable section of the arts and entertainment district on the south bank of the Thames.  From what I understand, the area was rather derelict until the last twenty years or so, which is probably part of the reason that skaters were attracted (or, at least, were not chased away) from the area.  Now, that space has been termed, essentially, the home of British skateboarding and has created its own culture, art, and heritage. From personal experience, it is a vibrant space that interacts well with the surrounding “high culture” of theatre, dance, and visual arts.  One need not be a skater to realize the cultural value of the skatepark.  If you haven’t seen the skatepark before, this gallery shows the space, the activity, and the people who use it. 

Now, however, it appears that the space where the skatepark exists is under threat for redevelopment.  The Southbank Centre, one of the performing arts buildings on South Bank, wants to develop the area both for retail and for a performing arts space.  They have proposed moving the skatepark approximately 200 metres from its current location. This proposal has created more than a little controversy, and has paired together some very strange bedfellows.

We could perhaps rightly consider that skateboarding as having something of a rebel culture, and not normally linked with something as stuffy and conservative as heritage.  However, in their bid to save the skatepark, skatepark supporter groups have formed a village green preservation society, arguing that it is an important sporting space worthy of conservation.  Similarly, such high art/heritage groups such as the English Heritage and the National Theatre have added their support for saving the skatepark, arguing both that the Southbank Centre’s redevelopment is inappropriate for the location and that it would destroy an important heritage location.

On the other side, Billy Bragg – a loud and proud left-wing folk singer and political activist – supports the skatepark redevelopment, arguing that the needs of the community outweigh the conservation of the skatepark and its users.

I am just learning about this case so I am likely missing some of the nuances, and I will admit to not knowing the space beyond the few times I’ve visited there, but I do have some initial thoughts.  First, this case does challenge some of the heritage binaries we hold dear, such as left/right, elite/common, high/low culture – at least in terms of advocacy.  They have been thrown together and mixed around in this case.  Secondly, it does seem inappropriate that the skateboard park and its users be relocated.  It is not as though this is a derelict space – it is seemingly an important pilgrimage point for skaters, and certainly reflects the culture and heritage diversity of twenty-first century London.  I think moving the skatepark changes its meaning – and while I don’t think that heritage are “things” as much as the meanings we put into “things” and spaces – I can imagine that a new skatepark would lack something of the authenticity of the current park.  Indeed, the new park may be seen in the same way that we now view memorials, and maybe it just wouldn’t be used, at least as a source of pilgrimage.  Finally, this is challenging what we view as heritage and why.  I can’t actually imagine that, twenty years ago, English Heritage would view a skateboarding park as heritage.  We have come a long ways, indeed.  However, some of the inherent elements of heritage remain.  In some ways, this does still reflect a certain amount of cultural dissonance – in terms of my culture (art/retail/performance) is more important than your culture (skateboarding, etc.) – at least in the way Bragg positions it.  It will be interesting to see how this proceeds, and whether there are still some twists going forward.