Friday, April 9, 2010

City of Champions Group 1

Our group will compare contemporary representations and manifestations of Edmonton as "City of Champions" against the sports archive of the late 1980's. We argue that Edmonton's media negotiates the relevance of the "City of Champions" post-Gretzky by relying on lexical ambiguity instead of the city's collective athletic success, and perpetuating a cultural myth of excellence.

The title “City of Champions” was originally coined just after the July 31st, 1987 “Black Friday” tornado by then-mayor Laurence Décor. The phrase referred to the outpouring of community resources to help rebuild and heal after a natural disaster caused millions of dollars in damage and killed 13 people. Its original usage had nothing to do with the sports franchises which have become its most oft-cited referent.

As Ideology

Ideologically, Edmonton’s reproduction of itself as the City of Champions has been complicated since the early nineties. With the decline of Edmonton’s sports teams, Edmontonians replace cultural fact, successful sports teams, with cultural myth. The city of champions becomes a concept on which a society can reflect, transform and modify to fit changing social circumstances.

Louis Althusser states that “every 'subject' endowed with a 'consciousness' and believing in the 'ideas' that his 'consciousness' inspires in him and freely accepts, must act according to his ideas", must therefore inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice”[1]. Because beliefs and ideas are a product of social practices, the belief that Edmonton is a City of Champions comes from practicing that particular ideology. In order for the phrase to be realized in a social environment, Edmontonians must perceive that they are practicing or participating in a City of Champions. Accordingly, a set of social conditions must be present to facilitate the practice of “Champion City”.

Is it possible that the fading or phasing out of Edmonton as the City of Champions is due at least in part to it being removed or supplanted by more dominant Ideologies? With the post- Gretzky era of sports fading into the background, Edmonton’s inhabitants became less able to engage with sport as the primary source of Champion status. During the Oil boom that ended in 2008, Edmontonians could have easily self-identified as Champions of industry, led by the billionaire oilers owner Darryl Katz.

Katz’s role as a champion of industry allows Edmontonians to practice the city of champions as a collective that can practice a modified form of championship; instead of being sports champions, they are instead able to practice it as participants in industry where every Edmontonian is interpellated as such.

Katz’s ubiquitous Rexall brand plays a substantial role in reinforcing the link between the Edmonton Oilers and their owner, sponsor, and colour match. This branding effectively produces a link between purchasing Rexall products, or shopping at Rexall stores and supporting the local hockey team.

Edmonton’s role as a City of Champions is a substantial part of how Edmontonians connect to the city. With or without hockey success, Edmontonians make do with what they’re given. If the sports teams aren’t winning, maybe business is. If that’s not the case, then we remain, to a small extent, greenspace champions.

As Nationalism

"The City Of Champions" binds Edmontonians under an ideology, not dissimilar from patriotism. Appiah wrote, "nations matter, when they do. . . in the same reason football and opera matters--as things desired by autonomous agents, whose autonomous desire we ought to acknowledge. . . even if we cannot always accede them"[2]. This is understood to speak to the desire of members to identify with their community3, and this is exactly what The City Of Champions aims to do. In the years following this slogan's pertinence to sport, however, how is it realized within the city?

Societies use "media to transmit values and beliefs"[3]; in other words, they use symbolic devices. This is exactly what the city attempts through investment into architecture, public areas, artwork, discourse, and other aspects of the city--an investment into the portrayal of the city. "Anything can serve as a symbol; hence, anything can potentially serve as a means of transmitting identity"[4]. In the case of Edmonton, the symbols portrayed through visual media can serve to reinforce the ideologies established by The City of Champions, in a post-sports dominant city, all the while retaining the slogan as being viable for the city.

"Edmontonians. . . talk about the city's undiscovered qualities: the spirit of voluntarism and community; the creative impulse in the arts scene; the streak of political independence; the refuge of the river valley; the shared tradition of athletics; the warmth and comfort of a hometown that looks winter in the eye, and defies it"[5].

Much like nationalism, when the integrity of Edmonton's self-affirmed title is called into question, Edmontonians are quick to react. The slanderous commentary is taken as an affront to the collective identity of the city [6]. The offender is an identifiable "other" who represents a threat to "us."

Physical artifacts have long been effective modes of signaling collective identities [7]. If we take visual culture to fall under the notion of physical artifacts, we can begin to understand how the ideology underlying this slogan (in a lexically ambiguous understanding) is a reinforcement to the way we see the city; a reinforcement to the aspects we choose to understand as being Edmonton.

Change Through History

It just so happened that the 80s was a good decade for Edmonton’s professional sports teams, as well. Both the Edmonton Eskimos and the Edmonton Oilers professional sports franchises won their respective league titles four and five times, respectively, during that decade. The Eskimos took home the grey cup in ‘80, ‘81, ‘82, and ‘87 shortly after the tornado. Similarly, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in the ’83, ’84, ’86, ‘ 87, and ’89 seasons. These last two cup wins are near enough the aftermath of the tornado to resonate with the event and become instantiations of the now-expanding list of reasons Edmonton calls itself the “City of Champions.”

Ironically, the Oilers haven’t won the cup again since the ’89-’90 season. In fact, the current roster of the Edmonton Oilers contains only four out of thirty players who are from Edmonton, and I would hazard a guess that the team(s) from the golden-years probably didn’t have a much better ratio. The players become honourary citizens of Edmonton, regardless of their transient relationship to the city and self-interested motives for being there. One must only look as far back as the betrayal of Ryan Smyth, home-grown Edmonton Oiler turned inadvertent traitor for having been traded to the New York Islanders.

Though the moniker has entered into popular consciousness as a reflection of Edmonton sports culture and history (especially in hockey), it is often used as praise for the exploits of others. Corporate executive and home-grown hero Daryl Katz is the new shining example of a non-athletic champion to which Edmonton attaches its title.

Not only is Daryl Katz the CEO of the successful pharmaceuticals empire, the Katz-Group, but he has also successfully and single-handedly bought up the Edmonton Oilers hockey franchise, and the minor-league Edmonton Capitals (formerly Cracker-Cats) baseball team. He is also seen as a hero for the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for donating $7 million toward pharmaceutical research, and as a now potential hero to the city of Edmonton for the plan to build a new sports arena downtown as part of the downtown revitalisation project. Katz’s work in the city, in business, and for the city’s sports franchises has earned him the title “Champion.” He stands as a figurehead for Edmonton’s past, present, and future successes as a strange conflation of pride, business, health, and leisure.

Local business champion Daryl Katz’s visage and brand logo loom over Edmonton’s preeminent sports institution. Is it a coincidence that he and his company’s successes often overshadow the accomplishments of the Edmonton Oilers?


The City of Champions for becomes a unifying concept that maintains its relevance, specifically by connecting Edmontonians through its polysemic meaning. It serves to both bind and complicate the perceptions that the city (re)presents to itself, as both a source of community spirit and as a way of disguising less pleasant aspects that don't match up with the dominant ideology.

[1] Althusser, L. (1970), "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays (1971), pp. 121-176, 160.

[2] Morgan, William J. "Sports as the Moral Discourse of Nations." In Values In Sport: Elitism, Nationalism, Gender Equality and the Scientific Manufacture of Winners, edited by Torbjörn Tännsjö and Claudio Tamburrini, 59-73. London: E & FN Spon, 2000.

[3] Pratt, Michael G. "Disentangling Collective Identities." In Identity Issues In Groups, edited by Jeffery T. Polzer, 161-188. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd., 2003.[3]

[4] Pratt, Michael G. "Disentangling Collective Identities." In Identity Issues In Groups, edited by Jeffery T. Polzer, 161-188. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd., 2003.[5]

[5] Goyette, Linda and Caroline Jakeway Roemmich. Edmonton: In Our Own Words. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004.

[6] Goyette, Linda and Caroline Jakeway Roemmich. ibid

[7] Pratt, Michael G. ibid

Blog Entry Supplied By Jason Fitzgerald, David Perkins, Curtis Visser

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