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Pulling the Pieces Together: Social Capital and the Olympics, Ancient and Modern

Paul Christesen

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

International Olympic Committee

“Serious sport … is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit”

There is a simple question of fundamental importance that can and should be asked about the Olympics, both ancient and modern: do they promote harmony, as the International Olympic Committee claims, or do they excite hostilities in an Orwellian fashion?

This question has deep roots. In the second century CE Phlegon of Tralles argued that the Olympics were founded in order “to restore the people to harmony and peace” (FGrH 257 F1). On the other hand, conflict was intertwined with the Olympics from an early date. For example, during the Olympic Games of 364 BCE a battle was fought at Olympia between the Eleans and Arcadians, in part over which group would control the sanctuary and hold the Olympics (Xenophon Hellenika 7.4.28-31).

This paper explores the effects of the Olympics using a concept, social capital, that has, since the publication of Michael Putnam’s Bowling Alone in 2000, emerged as a key area of inquiry for sociologists of sport. Social capital has not, however, been used either to study the ancient Olympics or to explore and explain differences in the effects of the ancient and modern Olympics.

At the most basic level social capital consists of networks of interaction that form the basis of particular kinds of interpersonal relationships. It iscommon practice to differentiate between three different kinds of social capital:

Type of Capital   Identity of Individuals      Nature of Relationship      Intensity of Bonds    Orientation

Bonding               similar in social status       horizontal                          strong                          exclusive

                               and social identity

Bridging                  similar in social status         horizontal                        intermediate            inclusive

                                 dissimilar in social identity

Linking                    disimilar in social power        vertical                       variable                        inclusive

Studies have conclusively shown that the daily practice of sport in contexts such as American high schools and local European sports clubs is a powerful source of bonding capital and thus fosters solidarity, cooperative action, and consensus among members of particular teams or clubs.  That type of sport, however, generates little bridging or linking social capital. Moreover, because bonding social capital creates exclusive groups, the daily practice of sport can reinforce pre-existing divides drawn along lines of social identity or social power.

The Olympics represent a prime example of a different kind of sport practice that involves competitions, held in front of large audiences, among athletes representing collectivities. This type of sport fosters both bridging and linking capital and thus can help overcome divides drawn along lines of social identity or social power. The prominence and iterated nature of the Olympics gives them a special potential as the source of bridging and linking capital—and hence as a source of harmony and peace.

Whether such potential is realized depends in large measure on whether social networks extend beyond the collectivities represented by the athletes. In ancient Greece, the fact that all of the athletes and spectators shared and celebrated a common ethnicity greatly facilitated the broad extension of social networks. The absence of a shared identity among competitors and spectators in the modern Olympics has meant that the social networks they foster tend to be coterminous with the specific collectivities represented by competitors. That significantly inhibits the capacity of the modern Olympics to foster peace and harmony across national lines. Thus, although the ancient and modern Olympics may share a goal of fostering peace and harmony, the ancient Olympics seem to have been more effective at achieving that goal than their modern counterpart.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Athletics and the Modern Olympics: History, Ideals, and Ideology

Session/Paper Number


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