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2014 was an interesting year in sport heritage. The ways in which the sporting past is used today seemed to garner a fair amount of public interest. This was particularly the case with the anniversary of the First World War and how sport became one of the primary avenues of public remembrance. Debates continued as to the content of sport heritage, particularly in the US as to how controversial pasts – particularly in baseball – ought to be recognized It was also exciting to see the organization of the first National Sporting Heritage Day in the UK, and I am pleased to see that sport heritage will again be celebrated on September 30 of this year. There was also plenty of great sport heritage research published, highlighted by the special sport heritage issue of the Journal of Heritage Tourism.
As for 2015, there appear to be the continuation of certain trends from the previous year, as well as sport heritage going in some new and exciting directions:
Commemoration – It seems likely that sport heritage will continue to be used in commemorations of particular anniversaries and events. Many First World War commemorations continue, and though it seems unlikely that there will be as many public events as in 2014 for the centenary, it would seem likely that the sporting arena may continue to be the vehicle for remembrance. Similarly, with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War this year, it will be interesting to see if sport is used in these commemorations. Also, in any given sport there are numerous anniversaries of famous events, athletes, and moments which, undoubtedly, will be recognized.
Commodification – The commodification of the sporting past would seem to continue in 2015, as heritage remains a strong, saleable good for sports franchises and leagues. Heritage-based sporting events continue, and continue to be popular (such as with the numerous outdoor hockey games throughout North America and Europe), historic “moments” can be planned in advance along with various forms of memorabilia (Derek Jeter’s retirement from the New York Yankees in 2014 showed how lucrative this practice can be), and the perceived stability of the past – particularly when compared with the unpredictable present and unknowable future – seems to draw our attention and precious (and finite) leisure time.
Politics – 2014 witnessed a transformation of sorts for sport heritage, from a benign “ye olde tyme” nostalgia trip to a tool of political and social change. The fight over sport heritage space – and, indeed, what heritage space looks like – took a decidedly political turn in London in 2013 and 2014 during the fight over the Southbank Skatepark. The “I Can’t Breathe” movement, particularly in the NBA, cited John Carlos and the 1968 Olympic protests as inspiration. No doubt more globally integrated networks mean that different people from different backgrounds will lay claim to different sport heritages, and it seems likely that what sport heritage is – and who gets to shape it and speak on its behalf – will continue to evolve.
This week marks one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War. The war impacted virtually every segment of society, including sports, and few – if any – athletes or sports organizations remained unscathed.
Sport plays an important role in how the War is remembered and commemorated. In particular, the now infamous Christmas Truce football match has become a focal point for how we understand the War (Ross Wilson’s excellent article about football and the the heritage of the Great War outlines these contemporary uses in greater detail) While different authors and sports organizations have looked at the sport history and heritage aspects of the First World War from different regional or national points of view, the War’s impact on cricket in England, in particular, seems to have attracted a great deal of attention.
The third test match between England and India in Southhampton this week was one of the focal points for cricket’s commemoration of the First World War. Both the England (above) and India (below) test teams paid their respects to the cricketers who fought and died in the War. The War’s impact on England’s test team, as well as first-class county cricketers, was immense. Hundreds of cricketers enlisted, and many – including four from England’s test team (basically, a quarter of the “national” cricket team) – never came home. July 29th’s Test Match Special podcast from the BBC featured a discussion about the players who served and died, as well as the impact the game had on domestic competitions and county cricket clubs. Many clubs nearly went bankrupt in the War, while competitive cricket was largely abandoned, only resurfacing for occasional charity matches to help fund various wartime causes. Other recent publications have looked at cricket and the First World War in England and, though I have not read them yet due to North American release dates, I look forward to reading books like Wisden on the Great War and The Last Over.
The interesting aspect of India’s part in this week’s commemoration is less about remembering Indian cricketers who died in the First World War, but reminding the wider world the immense role that India played in the war effort. By 1918, nearly 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in the War with nearly 130,000 casualties, 75,000 of which were deaths. Despite the contribution India played in the war, the country’s role is often overlooked, diminished, or ignored entirely in official commemorations. Part of this, as is suggested, certainly has racial overtones, but also points to another heritage issue, that of whose heritage gets remembered, by whom, and why. If nothing else, India’s test cricket team being (seemingly) an equal part of this recent public commemoration points to sport being used as a vehicle to perhaps address some of these larger heritage issues.
Addendum: Many thanks to Andrew Renshaw, editor of Wisden on the Great War, for sending this article that was part of the England v. India match programme from the third test at Southampton. In it you will find more details about both English and Indian cricketers that served, and were lost, in the First World War.
Every May for the past three years I have been a visiting scholar at KU Leuven in Belgium. Although part of my role here is teaching, primarily in an EU-sponsored master’s degree, I do have the great fortune to see a variety of heritage sites and get involved in a number of heritage-based research projects (some of which do involve sport heritage topics). In any event, as you can imagine much of the heritage tourism in Belgium is focused on the First World War, particularly during the centenary commemorations. This past weekend I went to an exhibition called Ravaged at Museum Leuven. The text below describes the purpose of the exhibition:
The sacking of KU Leuven’s library, detailed in the introduction of Margaret MacMillan’s excellent The War That Ended Peace, was one of the most shocking instances of cultural heritage being targeted in wartime, and placed Leuven as having a shared-heritage of destruction with other cities around the world. However, beyond topic itself – which is very interesting, and awfully depressing – of particular interest to me was that this was the first instance that I had encountered of (for lack of a better term) “meta-heritage.” In other words, here was a heritage site essentially staging an exhibition about heritage. I’m sure there are loads of other examples, particularly in celebration of anniversaries of heritage legislation and heritage organizations (though these would seem to me to be a bit once-removed), but this was the first exhibition I have encountered where the heritage was the…heritage.
Of course, this hasn’t a lick to do with sport heritage – until, of course, sport heritage gets very self-referential.
I’m pleased to announce the online publication of “It still goes on: football and the heritage of the Great War in Britain” by Ross Wilson of the University of Chichester. This paper is part of the special “Sport, Heritage, and Tourism” issue of the Journal of Heritage Tourism, available in its entirety this autumn.
From the abstract:
This article examines the museum displays and modern memorials that draw on the role of football and footballers in the history of the Great War in Britain. The place of football in the popular memory of the war in Britain is certainly significant at regional and national levels; from the stories of individual footballers and local teams signing up to fight for ‘King and Country’ to the more famous examples of soldiers kicking a football over no man’s land at the Battle of Somme in 1916 and the football game played between opposing combatants during the Christmas Truce of 1914. Museums and memorial sites in Britain and on the former battlefields that reference and represent the place of the sport in the conflict provide places for tourists and pilgrims to remember and mourn these events and the dead. However, the manner in which these sites of memory frame the significance of the game in relationship to the war reveals wider assumptions about the contested memory of the conflict in Britain. Whilst the popular memory of the war focuses on the slaughter of the battlefields and the piteous futility of war, attempts at revising this perception have sought to emphasise the endeavour, commitment and achievement of soldiers. In this battlefield of memory, sports heritage serves as a lens through which issues of contemporary identity in Britain can be established and contested.
My thoughts on this paper, from the forthcoming editorial:
Certainly sport played a role in the First World War, from the many athletes and administrators who fought in the War through to the now infamous Christmas Truce football matches, but it is the way that sport – and, football in particular – is used as a lens for remembering the War and for commemorating and memorializing the conflict that is of broader interest to heritage scholars. Football, Wilson argues, provides an emotive bridge as well as a marker for many British tourists. However, the emphasis on football also reveals much about contemporary British culture, as well as how the War is understood and remembered in Britain today. As such, this paper confronts many of the issues at play in contemporary heritage literature, albeit through a sports lens, including contestation over memory and memorialization, commodification and authenticity in heritage tourism, and the relationship between history and heritage.
This is a really fantastic research article, and is particularly welcome as we enter the centenary commemorations of the Great War. I strongly suggest that you have a read.
“The Christmas truce was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into “no man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of soccer with one another.
The truce is often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, while in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternization. In 1916, after the unprecedentedly bloody battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the beginning of widespread poison gas use, soldiers on both sides increasingly viewed the other side as less than human, and no more Christmas truces were sought.”
David Lowenthal reminds us that heritage is often about faith – particularly a faith in a past that could have, or should have, existed. In recent years, the Christmas Truce of 1914 – which included, among other activities, football/soccer matches between rival combatants on Christmas Day – has become one of the most symbolic moments in the history of human conflict. Of course, historically the Truce was little more than a blip – and probably did not have much strategic importance in the long run. However, the Truce reminds us that even in the most bloody of conflicts there remains the possibility of recognizing the humanity of the other, and maybe that something like Christmas – and what it represents – can inspire a peace, if only temporarily.