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Sport Heritage in England’s Northwest

When I first began my sport heritage research about a dozen years ago, I was told on repeated occasions – normally by those based in Britain – that sport heritage was strictly an “American” thing.  While certainly, at that time, things like sports halls of fame, stadium tours, and the like were more prevalent in the USA, the idea that sport heritage wasn’t really a part of the heritage narrative in Britain seemed farfetched to say the least. Indeed, now it appears that acknowledging, celebrating, and commodifying the many sport heritages of regions, communities, and teams across Britain are a central part of contemporary heritage narratives, particularly in England’s northwest.

Earlier this month while attending the Transnational Dialogues in Cultural Heritage in Liverpool (sport heritage in Liverpool is immense and very public, and will receive a dedicated blog post in the coming weeks), I had the opportunity to experience many sites and locations associated with the sporting heritage of the northwest of England.  Some of these sites are famous for being famous, as it were, some featured sporting practices that are traditional to the region, and some are more conscious of their touristic role.

The first site “visited” (in reality, only a quick drive past) was the Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club, one of the courses on the (British) Open rotation, having hosted the tournament eleven times and, most recently, in 2012.  There isn’t much in the way of public visitation to the site and, had it not been for my local hosts, I probably would never have been able to find the club. I was not the only tourist lurking outside of the club’s main gates but, as the sign below indicates, it’s not really a club that welcomes visitors in any case.

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Indeed, many sport heritages are not really meant for broad, touristic consumption – or, perhaps, are not self-conscious of a touristic gaze.  Such was the case when attending a Rugby League match in Wigan. In fact, despite being a sport with a lengthy and distinguished heritage, rugby league has the feel of a sport that is very recent, perhaps as a reaction to making rugby union “more exciting” in the same way that T20 cricket was set up as an antidote to test cricket.  However, it is a very traditional sport in England’s northwest and, despite the fact that game presentation (such as the music, etc) had more in common with, say, an NFL or NBA game, there were numerous markers around the stadium indicating the club – and sport’s – history.

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I suspect I may have been one of the few foreign spectators at the match (won by Wigan over rival Leeds with a last second penalty kick); unlike other sports like football, rugby league hasn’t attracted vast global attention and, as such, the atmosphere at the match was very local and, dare I say, authentic.

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Another community that appeared to publicly embrace and proudly display their sporting heritage was Preston.  Specifically, reminders of the town’s home football club – Preston North End (or PNE) – and their most famous player, Tom Finney, were present throughout my brief stay.  PNE are one of the oldest football clubs in the world, their home stadium, Deepdale, was the oldest football ground still in use and, for many years, the stadium housed the National Football Museum (the museum has since relocated to Manchester).  However, for a club that has been in some of the lower divisions of English football for some years, and have not won many major trophies since before the Second World War, the team appears to welcome quite a few visitors, particularly at a well stocked team shop, through a stadium tour, and via various heritage markers across the stadium grounds.  For a town like Preston, which appears unlikely to host many tourists, PNE appears to be one of the community’s star attractions.

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The name of PNE’s most famous player, Tom Finney, is also present throughout Preston’s city centre, most notably at the University of Central Lancashire’s sports centre which also has a wonderful interpretation display about his career, his life in Preston, and his contributions to the community

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While these examples do not come close to representing the entirety of sport heritages in England’s northwest, they are indicative that sport heritage is not just an “American” thing. Certainly, the role that sport has played in the history, culture, and development of Britain is immense, and it is wonderful to see that many communities – particularly those like Preston – acknowledge the important contemporary role of the sporting past.

Sport Heritage on the Radio

Last Friday, I talked sport heritage on The Jason Strudwick Show on TSN 1260 Radio in Edmonton, Canada. Jason is a former National Hockey League player, having played over 600 games for several teams – including the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks – before retiring in 2012.

Jason and I talked a bit about The Sport Heritage Review website and how I came to be involved in sport heritage.  We discussed the transference of sport heritage from one venue to another, a topic discussed in several research papers including Belanger’s study about the Molson Centre in MontrealGammon and Fear’s study of the tours of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and my study (along with Gammon and Huang) of borrowed heritage at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. On more of a nostalgia front, Jason and I briefly reminisced about our shared hockey past, as we were teammates in minor hockey about 25 years ago.  It was a fun chat, and I hope Jason and I get to gabbing again sometime soon.

In any event, the interview is about 15 minutes long and in two parts. The links for each part of the interview are below.  Happy listening!

Part #1(Interview begins at approximately the 43 minute mark)

Part #2 (Interview continues for approximately 10 minutes at the beginning of the hour)

 

The 16th Man

Much has been written about Nelson Mandela in recent days, and some of it has been about his association with sport – both personally and politically. Of course, there was much more to Mandela than sport – but his use of it as a source of unity, particularly at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, is legendary.

One of the undergraduate courses I teach is heritage tourism, and one of the units in the course is about the politics of heritage. During this unit, I discuss the idea of dissonance in heritage, in that heritage in its many forms is frequently divisive.  In other words, one person’s symbol or site of heritage pride is another’s symbol of hate or anguish.  Rarely are these divergent views reconciled.  In case after case, students are shown that, perhaps, the one inherent quality heritage demonstrates is division.

However, at the end of the unit, I show the students The 16th Man documentary from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 documentary series. In it, the students see how Mandela took the Springbok – one of the central symbols of apartheid – and made it into a symbol of unity. Of course, this challenges the students to question whether heritage always erects barriers or can actually help to build bridges, so to speak.