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Sport, War and Democracy in Classical Athens

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This essay concerns the paradox of athletics in classical Athens. Democracy may have opened up politics to every class of Athenian but it had little impact on sporting participation. The city's athletes continued to be drawn predominantly from the upper class. It comes as a surprise then that lower-class Athenians actually esteemed athletes above every other group in the public eye, honoured them very generously when they won, and directed a great deal of public and private money to sporting competitions and facilities. In addition athletics escaped the otherwise persistent criticism of upper-class activities in the popular culture of the democracy. The research of social scientists on sport and aggression suggests this paradox may have been due to the cultural overlap between athletics and war under the Athenian democracy. The essay concludes that the practical and ideological democratization of war by classical Athens legitimized and supported upper-class sport.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Queensland,

Publication date: 2009-02-01

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