Sport Heritage and Sport History: An Overview

Editor’s note: This is the first of two posts this week exploring the connections and intersections between sport history, sport heritage, and public history. These three fields do not always work together when studying and presenting the sporting past. We hope sharing different perspectives and overviews of the fields will help us forge conversations that discuss our agreements and disagreements in hope of working together to better study and share the past.

By Gregory Ramshaw, Guest Contributor 

The relationship between sport history and sport heritage is important, though this relationship is frequently misunderstood. Often, sport heritage and sport history are seen as synonyms (they are not), other times they are viewed in opposition to one another (again, they are not). Rather, there is a symbiotic relationship between sport heritage and sport history which many heritages and many histories share. However, few have as public a relationship as sport heritage and sport history.

To begin, it would be useful to briefly discuss what heritage is (and, perhaps, what it is not). Heritage is not history, nor is it “bad history,” though its ingredients may include academic and public history. Similarly, heritage is not old buildings, or artifacts, or your grandmother’s tea set – though, again, tangible objects are often part of heritage as well. Emma Waterton and Steve Watson (2015) broadly describe heritage as “a version of the past received through objects and display, representations and engagements, spectacular locations and events, memories and commemorations, and the preparations of places for cultural purposes and consumption” ( p. 1). The “vehicles” of heritage are multifaceted and intimately linked to contemporary culture and, as such, we have to understand heritage as a product of the present. Dallen Timothy (2011), one of the leading scholars of heritage tourism, in fact succinctly describes heritage as the present use of the past. The ingredients of heritage can come from many academic disciplines (including history, archaeology, anthropology, folklore, architecture, and geography, to name but a few), as well as collective and individual understandings and interpretations of the past (including, though not limited to, memory, nostalgia, reminiscence, traditions, rituals, and even fiction). These ingredients are then mobilized in the present in order to address some contemporary political, economic, or cultural concern. As such, the main questions of heritage are often: What stories about a past are told? Why are these stories being told? Who is authorized to tell the story? And, what contemporary – and, often, future – issues are addressed by the telling of the story? Equally, it is important to differentiate the study of heritage (normally termed Critical Heritage Studies) from advocacy for heritage.

In order to understand how sport history and sport heritage might converge and diverge, let us consider the Brooklyn Dodgers debut of Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947. The sport historian’s concern would be to critically understand that event in its own context; in other word’s, the historian’s concern is 1947, not 2016. The public historian’s concern might be how to translate the complex academic material that the academic historian produces about 1947, and make it relevant and accessible to a contemporary audience – say, at a sports hall of fame or sports museum. In this, the public historian’s concern is probably both past and present in terms of accurately presenting critical history to a non-specialist audience. However, for the sport heritage scholar the focus is always on the present, and specifically why particular pasts (be it history, or memory, or nostalgia, or any number of other ingredients) are mobilized for today. Thus, the sport heritage scholar’s questions might be: why is Robinson is being remembered in the first place? Who gets to lead the official remembrance and why? Which contemporary considerations are served by the remembrance? In this, the sport heritage scholar may be interested in the economic considerations of this heritage commemoration (e.g.: Is Robinson being remembered to sell tickets or increase souvenir sales?) or the political considerations (e.g.: Is Robinson being remembered to address MLB’s corporate or public image?), or the social/cultural considerations (e.g.: Is Robinson being remembered in order to re-articulate particular national values?). In this case, academic sport history, public sport history, and sport heritage are not divorced from one another, but rather they would each have a different approach, a different purpose, and often ask different questions.

Of course, many sport heritages have little to do with history, and are more intimately tied to geography, or anthropology, or nostalgia. The National Hockey League’s many outdoor hockey games incorporate very little academic history, other than perhaps referencing past games and players, and replicating jerseys from bygone eras. Rather, these events selectively mine the past to create a contemporary heritage-based spectacle. The Heritage Classic, the first major NHL outdoor hockey event, held in Edmonton in November 2003, used versions of the past – namely Canadian cultural ties to outdoor hockey as well as nostalgia for Gretzky and the 1980s Oilers teams – for contemporary economic purposes, mainly to keep season ticket holders interested in the club and increase revenue during challenging economic times (Ramshaw & Hinch, 2006; Ramshaw, 2014). The focus was not on a specific historical moment, nor was it on translating academic history to a broad audience. Rather, it was a celebration of sporting traditions, rituals, places, and cultures, many of which are intimately linked to the heritage of the community and the nation.

While not all sport heritage involves sport history, there are many ways in which sport history and sport heritage are related and work together. There is little doubt that sport heritage often needs a mooring to historical reality. I think this is particularly the case when public understandings and familiarity with sport history are mobilized in the present to address issues of justice and inequality. The idea of a “subaltern” sport heritage (Ramshaw, 2016 in press), where sport heritage is used to undermine or challenge dominant narratives, is a place where sport history and sport heritage are intimately related. Contemporary “advocate athletes” must have knowledge about John Carlos, Tommy Smith, and Arthur Ashe among others, in order to understand their current role. Without this historical understanding, subaltern sport heritage is depthless and lacks any form of legacy.

Similarly, the heritagization process – in other words, the process by which a “past” becomes a “heritage” – requires the critical heft of sport history. Often times, when sporting pasts become sport heritage, the broader social, cultural, and political meanings associated with those pasts are stripped, domesticated, and made palatable for public consumption. Sport heritage scholars and sport historians must work together in order to make sporting pasts accessible, interesting, potentially linked to other endeavors (such as tourism), but also broadly based in critical understandings of sport. I noticed recently that the great West Indian cricket teams of the 1970s and 80s, who were so intricately linked to both sporting and political triumph, are going through this heritagization process primarily to develop tourism in the region. As such, many of the former players such as Viv Richards are now “tourism ambassadors,” as well as the venues and communities that nurtured these great squads are part of tourism itineraries. It is important for sport historians and sport heritage scholars to understand and embrace the broader roles and purposes of the sporting past (including economic development) while also helping to both maintain and preserve what made those sporting pasts important in the first place. The West Indies teams are famous, in large part, because of a broad public knowledge of their place in the history of cricket, as well as their importance in the post-colonial history of the region. However, this historical understanding need not be incompatible with the team’s use as a symbol of regional pride and as vehicles for tourism promotion.

Finally, a criminally under-investigated topic is, for lack of a better term, the history of sport heritage. That is to say, an historical investigation into how particular sport heritages were mobilized and used at various times would tell us a great deal about both public history and the uses of heritage. There are a few wonderful examples of “sport heritage” history – most notably O’Neill and Osmond’s (2012) wonderful chapter on the interpretations of Phar Lap over the years – and this could make for a very fruitful topic.

While this heritage-history comparison may seem pedantic, it is important for sport scholars to understand that, while differences in approach between sport history and sport heritage exist, there is also room for broader understandings about how these fields might work together. As a sport heritage scholar, my interest is about how the sporting past is used today, by whom, and to what end. Often, those investigations overlap with both academic and public sport history, though not always. Similarly, I imagine the work of sport historians often intersect with sport heritage considerations. It is important to understand that sport heritage and sport history have different approaches, objectives, and questions. However, as more aspects of the sporting past become part of our present – from stadium design and sports museums, to the celebration and commodification of sporting traditions and rituals – it is increasingly important to understand how each approach the sporting past, and how we might work together.

Gregory Ramshaw is an Associate Professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University where he explores the social construction and cultural production of heritage, with a particular interest in sport-based heritage. His research has been published in numerous academic texts and journals, including the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Tourism Geographies, Current Issues in Tourism, and Tourism Review International, among many others. He is the editor of the Sport Heritage (2015) and is the co-editor of Heritage, Sport and Tourism: Sporting Pasts – Tourist Futures (2007) and Heritage and the Olympics: People, Place and Performance (2014), all published by Routledge. He also serves on the editorial boards of Event Management, The Journal of Heritage Tourism, and The Journal of Sport & Tourism. He completed his graduate work at the University of Alberta and the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He blogs at the Sport Heritage Review ( and Tweets @sportheritage1



O’Neill, M. & Osmond, G. (2012). A Racehorse in the Museum: Phar Lap and the New Museology. In M.G. Phillips (Ed.) Representing the sporting past in museums and halls of fame (pp. 29-48). London: Routledge.

Ramshaw, G. (2016 in press). Subaltern Sport Heritages. In B. Onciul, M.L. Stefano & S. Hawke (eds.) Engaging Heritage, Engaging Communities. Martlesham: Boydell & Brewer.

Ramshaw, G. (2014). Too Much Nostalgia? A Decennial Reflection on the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event. Event Management. 18 (4), 473-478.

Ramshaw, G & Hinch, T. (2006). Place Identity and Sport Tourism: The Case of the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event. Current Issues in Tourism, 9 (4&5), 399 – 418.

Timothy, D.J. (2011). Cultural Heritage and Tourism: An Introduction. Bristol: Channel View.

Waterton, E. & Watson, S. (2015). Heritage as a Focus of Research: Past, Present and New Directions. In E. Waterton & S. Watson (eds.). The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research (pp. 1-20). London: Palgrave Macmillan

Suggested Reading – Heritage

Graham, B., Ashworth, G.J., & Tunbridge, J.E. (2000). A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture & Economy. London: Arnold.

Harrison, R. (2013). Heritage: Critical Approaches. London: Routledge

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.

Suggested Reading – Sport Heritage

Gammon, S. (2004). Secular Pilgrimage and Sport Tourism. In B.W. Ritchie & D. Adair (Eds.), Sport Tourism: Interrelationships, Impacts and Issues (pp. 30-45). Clevedon: Channel View Publications.

Gammon, S. (2011). “‘Sporting’ new attractions? The commodification of the sleeping stadium”. In R. Sharpley & P. Stone (Eds.), Tourism experiences: contemporary perspectives (pp. 115–126). London: Routledge.

Hill, J., Moore, K, & Wood, J. (eds.) (2012). Sport, History, and Heritage: Studies in Public Representation. Suffolk: The Boydell Press.

Phillips, M.G. (ed.) (2012) Representing the sporting past in museums and halls of fame. London: Routledge.

Ramshaw, G. (2010). Living Heritage and the Sports Museum: Athletes, Legacy and the Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum, Canada Olympic Park. Journal of Sport & Tourism, 15(1), 45-70.

Ramshaw, G. & Gammon, S. (2010). On Home Ground? Twickenham Stadium Tours and the Construction of Sport Heritage. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 5(2), 87-102.

Ramshaw, G., Gammon, S. & Huang, W. (2013). Acquired Pasts and the Commodification of Borrowed Heritage: The Case of the Bank of America Stadium Tour. Journal of Sport & Tourism, 18 (1), 17-31.

Springwood, C.F. (1996). Cooperstown to Dyersville: A Geography of Baseball Nostalgia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Snyder, E. (1991). Sociology of Nostalgia: Sport Halls of Fame and Museums in America. Sociology of Sport Journal, 8, 228-238.

3 thoughts on “Sport Heritage and Sport History: An Overview

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