- Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds by Christesen, Paul
The fundamental contradictions apparent in viewing sport both as a democratizing force that rewards merit and talent over birth and entitlement, and also as a stratifying impulse that separates winners and losers are not easily reconciled. Nevertheless, Paul Christesen’s book Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds tackles the issue of democratization and sport, offering a keen analysis of the role sport has played in a society’s conception of the individual, the collective, and the notion of equality.
Christesen’s thesis, introduced almost nonchalantly, suggests that there is “good reason to think that there may well be a connection of some sort between democratization in society and democratization in sport (p. 2). This simple observation, however, is but the beginning of an extremely dense, articulate, nuanced, and sophisticated analysis that straddles the ancient and modern worlds and nimbly hops among many disciplines, including sociology, social psychology, political science, and history in order to explore and to argue its many facets.
After carefully defining precisely the work’s terms and concepts (chap. 2), Christesen bases his argument on the theoretical foundation that societies are arranged in sets of vertical and horizontal relationships. Vertical relationships are “hierarchical and unequal” while horizontal relationships feature groups with basic equal status (p. 14). Democratization is the process whereby horizontal relationships gain ground over vertical relationships in society and in sport.
Next, Christesen sets out to explore horizontal and vertical relationships in both sports and societies (chaps. 3–7). Knowledge from several disciplines informs his treatment of social order, social capital, the importance of societal and sporting rules, and the role of sport in forming society.
In addition to its highly sophisticated treatment of theory and analysis, Christesen’s work invokes quantitative data, with appropriate caveats concerning correlation and causation. Interestingly, Christesen contrasts a nation’s Unified Democracy Score, “the most comprehensive measure of degree of democratization currently available” (p. 50), with data from the International Social Survey Programme about national participation in mass horizontal sport. Unsurprisingly, there exists a strong connection between a nation’s overall level of democracy and the percentage of its population that regularly participates in sport (p. 112). However, the limits to the data prevent further investigation of how horizontal mass sport might have corresponded to, or even have caused, democratization in these nations. Thus, to explore these relationships over time, Christesen turns to the historical record.
Christesen argues that a comparative analysis of sports in their societies offers the best chance to examine the relationship between horizontal mass sport and increased democratization. The work focuses on sport and democratization in ancient Greece & Great Britain, [End Page 504] with some additional attention to developments in modern Germany and the United States.
The examination of sport, society, and democratization in ancient Greece is unparalleled in scope, content, concision, and relevance. A classicist by training, Christesen deftly navigates the ancient sources in order to provide pertinent and clear commentary on the social roles of sport among the ancient Greeks. There is considerable use of ancient Greek terminology, but these terms are well-defined and purposefully used. From Homer to Athens, the account repackages well-worked material into a fresh and new understanding of social order and mass participation. These three chapters (8–10) offer a formidable summation of sport in Hellenic society in general, as well as the role of horizontal sport in democratization at Athens.
The remainder of the work focuses on the emergence of mass sport in Europe, especially Great Britain and Germany, in conjunction with the democratic developments since 1800 (chaps. 11–15). Although Christesen resorts to summarizing treatments of major developments, he nevertheless manages to maintain a firm seating in the book’s stated scope, admirably testing his thesis over multiple case-studies that span considerable time and distance.
Overall, this work is carefully reasoned, laboriously constructed, and painstakingly argued in its contention that mass participation in...