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Looking to Sochi: Olympic Bids and Heritage

Recent reports from Sochi, now just a few days away from the start of the Winter Olympics, are not promising.  The students in my sport tourism class asked why international sport organizations like the IOC grant bids to countries that seem ill-prepared to host a Games.  While I’m waiting to hold my fire for Sochi until the Games actually begin (after all, it seems like the days leading up to almost every Olympiad are fraught with challenges), and I’ll leave the “why” of the IOC’s decision to more qualified sport management scholars, it did make me think of the bidding process and a chapter in the Heritage and the Olympics book (also available in the International Journal of Heritage Studies) where Ulf Strohmayer describes Olympics that “never were” and the impact hosting an Olympics on the non-Olympic heritage infrastructure of cities (in his case, Paris).  From the abstract:

This paper examines three failed bids by the French Olympic Committee and the City of Paris to host the summer Olympic Games of 1992, 2008 and 2012 in an attempt better to understand the role of heritage designations in the context of urban change. Introducing the various sites earmarked for the Games, the paper explores the relationship between planning as a political tool and its impact on the built environment within the context of a complex web of local, national and international demands, needs and aspirations. Based on archival research, the paper explores the dialectical relationship between the demonstrated ability of city councils to declare designated ‘Olympic’ spaces as functionally ‘ready’ to absorb massive new infrastructures and questions posed by whatever physical infrastructure remains after a bid has failed. Since the timeframe chosen for the paper (1986–2006) coincides with a move by the International Olympic Committee to prioritise ‘sustainable urbanism’ as a key legacy of ‘successful’ Olympic Games, this relationship between presences and absences is mediated not just with the help of possible futures in the form of Olympic sites but has had to validate and justify the choice of terrain as well. The paper concludes with a brief meditation on the relationship between present urban heritage and possible futures in the context of mega-events like the Olympic Games.

Although the Paris bids and the Sochi Games are quite different, it did make me think about the risks involved in hosting an Olympic Games.  I wonder if Paris dodged a bullet by not hosting a modern Olympics – not that they wouldn’t be prepared, but for how such an event might alter the city (though, post-London, this may be less of an issue).  In the case of Sochi, it doesn’t seem – at present – like it is setting up to be a successful Games.  Even for locations like Vancouver, which were largely successful in terms of operations and image, didn’t have much lasting economic impact (if any) and, really, was a two week period for Canadians to feel good about themselves (which isn’t a bad thing, mind you).  Seemingly, then, the main reason for hosting a mega sporting event these days is to create post-event legacies through infrastructure, create a sense of domestic cohesion through nationalism, and…well…not much else. One has to wonder if hosting an Olympics is something best avoided – I guess we’ll see at Sochi.

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. 

My (Current) Favourite Sport Heritage Experience

My students sometimes ask me what my favourite sport museum or sport heritage site is.  Strangely, I often have a difficult time answering this.  There are sites that, from a professional/researcher perspective, get almost everything right (The Ali Center in Louisville comes to mind, as well as the recently-discussed St. James’ Park tour in Newcastle). There are also locations that are also intricately interwoven with my own identity, heritage, and memory (Rexall Place/Northlands Coliseum and Telus Field in my hometown fit this category). Still, I find it a difficult question to answer – perhaps because it changes quite often.

That being said, a recent fantastic day – as in, top five all time – involved a sport heritage site.  This past May, my family treated me to a day at Lord’s. I had been to Lord’s a couple of times before – once for a tour, the other for an ODI.  This past May, however, was something special.  First, we were seeing a day of a test match – something that I’d always wanted to see.  Secondly, I was there with my mother and father, my wife, and my infant son. Lastly, it was Lord’s…at Lord’s, for goodness sake! 

The time at the Ground itself was rather short – 14 wickets fell in a little over three hours, and England defeated New Zealand by a comfortable margin. But, the day itself was just wonderful. I was watching cricket with my family, I bought a silly wide-brimmed hat, which I adore (though, I think it ages me by at least a decade). We had a great conversation with some farmers from Cambridgeshire, and my son not only behaved and was charming throughout – he even patiently watched some of the match (which was remarkable, given his age). After the match, my wife and I took our son for a long walk through Regent’s Park. We ate ice cream, chased some ducks and pigeons, and strolled barefoot through the grass. It was a perfect day of leisure.

So, as I sit here in a coffee shop in Clemson, South Carolina, following the second Ashes test at Lord’s, I am reminded of that lovely day with my family – and how I am convinced that much of the power of heritage comes from memory, nostalgia, or a personal connection. That being said, this day all happened at or around the “Home of Cricket” – which only enhanced the experience and provided an additional layer of heritage.  I had been to Lord’s before – and, though I liked it very much, it didn’t resonate until that experience back in May. 

So, if you will forgive the indulgence, Lord’s – or, at least that particular day at Lord’s – is my favourite sport heritage experience.


(An old man in a floppy hat, and a remarkably well-behaved little boy – at the Home of Cricket)

The Purpose of Olympic Museums

An article in The Guardian in late April mentioned that plans for an Olympic Museum in London have been scrapped.  In some respects, this is a surprising development given the role the Olympics have played in London’s sport history and heritage.

What remains unclear is what purpose the organizing committee hoped a museum would serve post-Games. Certainly there may be some in tourists and locals wanting a place to remember and re-live the Games experience?  However, a repository for Games relics and memories doesn’t appear to be enough to sustain such a museum long-term, particularly given London’s very competitive museum and heritage market.

Some research I published in the Journal of Sport & Tourism a few years ago about the Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum in Calgary suggests the role a post-Games Olympic museum.  Mangers at the museum and its host site, Canada Olympic Park (C.O.P), were adamant that their museum was not just about the 1988 Winter Olympics.  Rather, they saw it as a way of promoting the sports and athletes of Olympic sport, as well as emphasizing C.O.P. as vibrant and active athlete training centre – and not simply a relic of a distant Games.  Certainly, the museum played a role in C.O.P.’s tourism development initiatives (it remains the most visited tourist attraction in Calgary) and artifacts from the 1988 Olympics remained a part of the museum displays. However, the museum’s role was much more tied to the current operations and mission of C.O.P. and its managing organization (at the time, the Calgary Olympic Development Agency or C.OD.A.) – that of athlete training and development.  The museum has since been replaced with the more extensive Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, suggesting the significant role sport heritage plays in the current operation of C.O.P.

Perhaps the proposed Olympic museum in London didn’t have these legacy outputs and, as such, was scrapped?