Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.68 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.68

Paul Christesen, Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvii, 309.  ISBN 9781107012691.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by David Cast, Bryn Mawr College (

This study, as the author nicely puts it, is built astride two distinct fault lines, one methodological—that between history and sociology—the other chronological—between the story of sports in antiquity and sports in nineteenth-century Britain. But the author, a professor of Classics at Dartmouth College, chose to bridge such gaps in order to untangle a question that interested him about the possible connections between what here is called democratization in sport and the larger facts of democratization in society as a whole. Christesen’s earlier work was much concerned with the economic history of the ancient world. And his status here, as an outsider to the history of sports and to the political history of Britain, perhaps conferred a certain breadth of vision, reaching across the centuries. In history, correlation, as Christesen acknowledges, is not causation. But what he picks up here is the idea of what he calls mass sports, seen as a rare social practice that appeared first in classical Greece to be revived in Britain a thousand years later, and the possibility that such activity accompanied a move to democracy in both societies, democracy here taken to be a concept that defines and regulates not only politics but many other dimensions of social existence. Hence his interest in the history of sport—sport, of course, always being distinct from play—and here in mass sport, that is to say a situation in which large numbers of people from a broad socioeconomic spectrum are involved. As such, mass sport encourages what Christesen speaks of as a horizontal rather than a vertical relationship, the horizontal embodying equal relationships among the participants, the vertical embodying the social and political hierarchies in the culture at large.

This then is the story here. And if the author spends the first part of his study thrashing around the protocols of sociology to define his language—here, as he acknowledges, he depends much on Thomas Merton—once the terms are clear he comes to what is for him of primary interest, namely an account of the place of sports in Greek society from the Bronze Age to the sixth century BCE, by which time sports, once merely the practice of a small elite, became, through the development of athletic contests and choral dances, something like a meritocratic competition. Sports in the Early Iron Age, that is to say from about 1100 BCE to 700 BCE, had as their goal the acquisition of honor or respect, and it was these ideals that moved the competitors in Homer and defined the athletic contests in the Iliad and the Odyssey, where all was clearly described in terms of social standing. Thus—to cite a famous instance—when Odysseus, returning home disguised as a beggar, offered to enter an archery contest to win back Penelope, his request was roundly condemned by the other noble suitors. And if at this time there were occasions when other formalized athletic activities took place, most obviously the Olympics, dated by tradition to 776 BCE, these, whether coming, as did the Olympics, from religious festivals or from any of the many forms of initiation rites, were set within rituals that served to confirm the existing social distinctions. It was only later that what can be seen as the democratization of sport emerged, whether as in Sparta as part of the training of citizens as soldiers, or, as in Athens within the athletic contests of the Panathenaea, the festival honoring Athena herself, established by Peisistratus in 566 BCE, and in both cultures participation in sports was expanded to take in a far wider segment of the population. Which is not to say that women or slaves were ever allowed to participate in such activities, though in Sparta it appears that girls, up to the moment of marriage, played sports, occasionally competing against each other, if never against boys.

For Christesen, in his analysis of politics and sports, Aristotle is a useful witness, for he noted that the character of the citizens of a state should be in harmony with the nature of the political system, the state being seen as democratic and encouraged by an education that included sports as an essential way to realize true harmony. In sports it was possible for meritocratic competition to promote egalitarian relationships: a fast runner, as Christesen puts it, if not distinguished by either lineage or wealth, might meet on a footing of relative equality a slower runner coming from a distinguished and wealthy family. Here, interestingly the idea of nakedness, embodied in the words used to describe all athletics—the adjective gymnos, the verb gymnazein, the noun gymnasion—, would also play its part in such democratization (though women in Sparta, bare-thighed as Plutarch put it, were required to wear a short, if revealing tunic). Nakedness, shorn of any other social attributes, allowed those who were tanned from laboring outside to appear without shame besides those, far paler, who worked at nobler tasks inside. And if, when the participants were so stripped, distinctions might still be made, these could reverse the usual social prejudices, the white-rumped figure (leukopygos) being seen as cowardly and unmanly, the dark-bottomed (melampygos) as brave as Herakles.

This was a unique moment, for in the fourth century BCE, the political dimensions of Greek sports changed, as did society at large, and athletic competitions became less an arena for defusing the power of social and political privileges than a way for Greeks, faced by the conquests of Alexander and the spread of their culture through the Middle East, to define their particular identity. And something of such self-definition survived for many years within the culture of the Roman Empire, if finally to be terminated under the mandates of Christianity, when the association of sports with pagan deities made them unacceptable to the newly converted Empire. In 391 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued edicts that explicitly forbade participation in pagan cults; and if the Olympics lingered for a few more years, in 520 CE the Emperor Justin specifically banned all athletic contests, which were to reappear, in the form Christesen considers, only a thousand years later, in Europe in the nineteenth century and most characteristically in Britain.

It is here that we come to the third part of Christesen’s account, and, to set this out he turns to an earlier moment and to the idea of the gentleman, noting that this figure, even as early as the sixteenth century, was defined by a life that placed sports within the new context of leisure, of the need not to work. Such a social ideal would not lead to the possibility of mass sports; yet with the emergence two centuries later, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, of a new middle class, the social and political context for sports was fundamentally redefined to encourage something of the kind. At this point, much in the development of sports seems to be difficult to describe, but the end product is familiar and a new account of the virtues and values of sports was to emerge. Here the reform of the so-called public schools, nine in number, was crucial, as was the figure of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828-40, and the presence, at that moment, of many other schools founded in emulation of such models to accommodate, after the Industrial Revolution, a new and ever growing middle class. Here, whoever was involved, the idea of sports was taken to be a form of discipline and a way of toughening boys up to turn them into the military officers then needed to serve in the armies Britain sent across the globe. Was this, in the terms of his Christesen's definitions, to be seen as mass sport? At this point he offers statistics showing that in Greece in the sixth century BCE, some 40% or 50% of the families in any community were expected to play sports regularly, whereas in Britain at this time, the late 1870s, merely some 15-20% did the same—and even this figure he notes, is probably too high.

There is much more in the last parts of Christesen’s account: the development of sports in Prussia in the late nineteenth century, and an additional section on Britain where he speaks, in particular, of what happened when more members of the lower classes started to play sports. Here it was in clubs, particularly those associated with churches, that people might pick up the habit of playing sports regularly. Such a development, as a matter of political policy, could be welcomed in part, but, not surprisingly, such an opening up of sports led to new distinctions, most notably that between the amateur and the professional athlete, which lingered on even after World War II, serving to mark out an obvious barrier between the rich and the less rich. As did the growth of sports that, like golf, were expensive, as did also the founding of clubs at the sites where sports were played, by which, as a Scottish newspaper nicely put it in 1885, the artisans may be equal in the field, but they are not made to feel equal in the pavilion.

Christesen ends with a brief account of mass sports in the United States—here we have a picture of Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947, when he became the first African-American to play major league baseball—and a conclusion where he comes back to the idea of a correspondence between democratization in sports and that within society as a whole. He ends with a call for us to spend more on public sports, even in face of the severe distress affecting all parts of the economy, for the cuts that have been introduced in the United States inevitably fall more heavily on the less well-off institutions and families, thereby reducing participation in an activity so vital to the idea of equality and social cohesion. This we all know; this we can deplore.

There is a great deal of material here, on sports itself, on politics, on history. It is perhaps chapters 8 to 10 that will be of most interest to readers of this review, but it is easy for everyone to dip into whichever part of Christesen’s account seems most salient, whether the record of ancient history or the sociological and political definitions or, as for the present reviewer, the tradition of sports in Britain that, when young, he had to experience in his school. How far the parts of this account add up to a coherent whole is not clear; indeed, to recall the language of his opening pages, it was indeed risky and foolhardy for the author to attempt to cover all he took on. But then, as he says, it is the reader who will decide if the promise inherent in the subject matter and approach is fully realized. And there is no question that, in all its varied parts, this study is a provocative account, firmly grounded in scholarship and introducing possibilities and problems perhaps not generally familiar to students either of Greece or of modern Britain.

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