Sociology, Sport and Change: 1 – Ancient to Modern

Sport as play, performance, work or fitness, or skilful preparation for inter-community competition or war has been around as long as humans, and conceivably before.  But this has not always been sport that ‘we’ identify as such.  This blog’s author’s and likely readers’ starting point for defining sport is in all probability the second decade of the twenty-first century, and from the vantage point of the Occident.  Furthermore ‘our’ sport is likely to be framed by the professional endeavours of major celebrities in major competitions, ranging from the primary global sport of soccer to the collation of excellence in contemporary Olympiads to the USA World Series baseball and Super Bowl.  Our sport, in other words, needs contextualizing.

Unsurprisingly, the quantity and quality of available evidence is itself associated with time and place.  There remain only the scantiest of materials on what we would today recognize as sporting activities prior to the emergence of oral and later written histories, and in cultures at the margins of our – that is, largely Western – curiosity and interest.  Nor is reaching deeply into the unknown or neglected epistemologically straightforward.  Grandy’s principle of humanity maintains that if we are to understand cultures far removed in time or space from our own we must assume that the families of beliefs, attitudes and desires we encounter are as similar to our own as possible.  Lukes writes in similar vein that the principal of humanity prescribes the minimum of unintelligibility – that is, of unintelligible agreement and disagreement.

Any chronological framework for human sociality and organization would understandably lead to consternation amongst historians.  But social change is not always gradual or predictable: there are discernible transitions.  Even the historian’s historian, Braudel, lends his considerable authority to the most recent of ruptures, that occurring around 1970 and marking a transition from one  phase of capitalism to another (more of this in a subsequent blog).

Guttman’s influential comparative analysis of ‘ancient Greek’ and ‘modern European/North American’ sport is an expedient point of departure.  Guttman works back from what he sees as seven defining characteristics of modern sport:

  • secularism
  • equality
  • specialization
  • rationalization
  • bureaucratization
  • quantification
  • records

His comparison of the Greek games and contests (between 1000 BC and 100 AD) and modern sport (from 1800 on) runs as follows.

In terms of the first key feature of modern sport, secularism, he observes that in the cultures of the Greek polis, or city-state, the activities we associate with sport were almost invariably bound up with religious rituals and ceremonies.  The games held at Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, Nemea and elsewhere had more in common with those found in the ‘primitive’ cultures of the agrarian societies of the day than with the nineteenth-century European reconstruction of the Olympics: ‘the relative familiarity of Greek culture and the revival of specific track and field sports in our own time act to obscure fundamental similarities between the sports of the Athenians and those of the Apaches and Aztecs.  Olympia’s ancient games were rooted in religion.

But there was more than a hint of the secular too in Greek sport, a tendency exacerbated in the Roman era.  This is not to say that originally religious athletic celebrations became worldly, rather that there was a growing concentration on its core elements of play, exercise and competition.  Sport, in other words, became a routine aspect of the life and sustenance of the Greek polis.  The seeds of secularism had been planted even if the bond between the sacred and the secular was only truly broken in modern sport.

Equality is Guttman’s second characteristic, encompassing both equality of opportunity to compete and in conditions of competition. Such equality is largely assumed in contemporary sport even if it is not always realized in practice in many early human cultures there was no such assumption, since it was the gods not the competitors’ skills who determined the outcome.  The Greeks exhibited the hallmarks of a commitment to equality. According to Finlay and Pleket, every competitor had the same formal rights, under the same rules, and could claim the prize if he won; only his skill and strength mattered.  In a world of built-in inequalities, that was a significant rarity. The rub lies in the ‘built-in inequalities’.  Slaves and non-Greeks (‘barbarians’) were barred from athletic competition, and women were banned from Olympia and most other games.

Specialization is the third defining property.  The difference between ancient and modern is again one of degree.  After a short phase of non-professional aristocratic dominance, athletic professionalization in ancient Greece became ubiquitous, reaching beyond the aristocracy to less wealthy but talented male citizens.  The latter’s training and careers were underwritten by civic funds.  Not that this professionalization was without its critics: which of all the ‘countless evils through Hellas’, Euripides complained, exceeds this manufactured ‘race of athletes’!  We shall encounter disciples of Euripides in following chapters.

Fourth in Guttman’s list is rationalization, which refers to the fact that the rules of modern sporting engagement are means to an end, cultural artefacts rather than divine injunctions.  In sociological terms, sports are rationalized in the sense of Weber’s Zweckrationalitat.  Greek sports occupied a space somewhere between the perception of athletic rules as sacred and as useful conventions. The example Guttman gives is discus-throwing. While each participant in the ancient Greek games used the same set of discuses, the dimensions and weight of discuses were certainly not standardized, varying considerably between games. Similarly, Greek stadia varied from festival to festival: at Olympia the stadium was 192.28 metres, at Delphi 177.5 metres, at Epidaurus 181.13 metres, and at Pergamon 210 metres. Standardization was simply not salient for the Greeks, nor was it for the Romans.

Bureaucracy is the fifth defining characteristic.  The rules of sport and their administration are in modern sport in the hands of a bureaucratic apparatus, a form of organization almost unknown in early or primitive societies.  In ancient Greece, however, there was some intimation of the modern.  The Athenians elected officials, or selected them by lot; and each gymnasium had its overseer.  It is uncertain to what extent this administration was secular as opposed to sacred, but it expanded prolifically in the Roman era.  The Romans also created associations or guilds of athletes, an Imperial enterprise by AD 150, with elected leaders, membership certificates, codes of appropriate conduct, and so on.

Quantification in sport was minimal in primitive cultures, in contrast with the modern ineluctable tendency to transform every athletic performance into one that can be measured or quantified in some way. American baseball springs to mind here, as does cricket in England, but ever more precise and sophisticated forms of quantification now seem ubiquitous.  The Greeks, by contrast, were uninterested in quantification beyond that required to distinguish victory from defeat.  Guttman: ‘for them, man was the measure of all things, not the object of endless measurements’.

Finally, and relatedly, Guttman lists records among his characteristics.  The record, he argues, represents a coming together of the desire to win and the tendency to quantification.  Moreover records travel well, facilitating competition with the absent aspirants.  The keeping of records was not unknown in primitive cultures but none displayed the modern mania for them.  The Greeks do not appear to have possessed the concept at all, having no traceable manner of referring to the setting or breaking of a record.

Guttman frames his characteristization of modern sport via a comparison with ancient Greece in general, and its games at Olympia in particular.  His contribution has been welcomed in part because it issues in a sociologist’s ‘ideal type’ of modern sport, and in part because it acknowledges the historian’s interest in the very considerable degree of variability to be found in past and present.


Grandy,R (1993)  Reference, meaning and belief.  Journal of Philosophy 70 439-452.

Lukes,S (1982)  Relativism in its place. In Ed Hollis,M & Lukes,S:  ‘Rationality and Relativism.  Oxford; Basil Blackwell.

Guttman (1978)  From Ritual to Record: the Nature of Modern Sports.  New York; Columbia University Press.


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