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The changing role of sport

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sports
Wordcount: 2788 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Changing Role of Sport


The purpose of this report is to look at the history in sport. This report will research the changing role of sport between 19th – 21st centuries and look at the participation levels from an historic and modern view. This report will also look into sociological theories including the Figurational and Conflict theory and apply these to the history in sport.

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Changing role of sport

Throughout human history games and sports activities have always been integrally related to the social, political and economic relationships between people in any given society (Coakley 1994).As the relationships changed and power has shifted there have been changes in the organisation and meanings of games and sporting activities.In prehistoric times physical activities were directly tied to the challenge of survival and the expression of religious beliefs (Guttman, 1978).People hunted for food and sometimes used their physical abilities to defend themselves or establish status and power among others (Coakley 1994).Social inequalities have always had a significant impact on how sport activities are organized and play in any situation.

Games in ancient Greece were held in the interest of young males from wealthier segments of society. As the popularity of the games started to grow, contestants from different cities started to compete (Baker, 1982). The outcomes of organised games took on political implications beyond the events themselves athletes were recruited from the lower classes and paid for their participation (Miller, 1991). Where these games were held and the date they were held on were also linked to religious beliefs. According to Crowther (1996) this showed games as brutal and dehumanizing events such as people with limited physical skills and dull minds took part. This lead Crowther (1996) to believe that the dumb athlete emerged long before college scholarships. Activities engaged by Greek women children and elderly were included in festivals but were never incorporated in the Olympic Games. However when woman did participate in the Olympic Games, their sexuality was questioned by many (Kidd 1984). Even though women from wealthy families did start to take part in these games, the events were limited and women’s achievement were not promoted and publicized.

Roman sports emphasised mass entertainment. Participants in these events were usually slaves, condemned criminals or gladiators. Slaves were coerced into jeopardising their life to battle with one another or wild animals (Plass, 1995). Condemned criminals were dressed in sheepskin and thrown into the stadium with partially starved animals and Gladiators were trained for preparation (Plass, 1995). These organised events were sometimes connected with religious rituals. To show power within the society the emperor would pass fruit, bread or raffle tickets around the stadium to keep spectators from getting hostile and starting riots (Coakley, 1994). According to Baker (1982) these events achieved two purposes (1) entertainment and while at the same time (2) disposing of the socially undesirable (thieves, murderers and Christians). Romans were criticised for these events as tactless activities, devoid of any cultural value. This criticism was based on the idea that no good could come out of these events during which people from different social classes were mixed (Plass, 1995). Women were forbidden to participate in event but unlike the Greeks women were aloud in the stadium to watch events (Coakley, 1994).

Sporting activities in Europe during the middle ages clearly reflected gender and status differences in medieval societies (Reeves, 1995). The peasants played highly localised versions of folk games in the connection with seasonal events in village life (Ziegler, 1993). The knights engaged in tournaments and jousts while other members of the upper class including the clergy used their resources to develop sporting activities to occupy their leisure time (Coakley 1994). This pattern continues through the renaissance and parts of Europe. However the Protestants reformation tended to generate negative attitudes about any activities interfering with work and religious worship. The impact of these attitudes was felt most sharply by peasants who seldom had the resources to avoid the restrictive controls imposed by government.

During the early days of the industrial resolution the influence of the puritans faded in both Europe and North America but the demands of work and the absence of spaces for play generally limited sport involvement to the wealthy and people in rural areas (Coakley 1994). This pattern began to change in the United States during the middle to the late nineteenth century, when the combined influence of labour unions, progressive legislation and economic expansion lead to the creation of new ideas about the consequences of sport participation. However, opportunities for involvement were primarily shaped by the needs of an economy emphasizing mass production and mass consumption. It was this context that people shaped what now is referred to as organised and competitive sport (Coakley 1994). To this present day it is part of a young child’s day to do one hour of physical activity and the government expect this to be high quality physical activity that produces young people with the skills, understanding, desire and commitment to continue to improve and achieve in a range of health-enhancing activities (BUPA, 2007). ACSM recommend that adults should do moderately intense cardio for 30 minutes a day, 5 times per week; alongside 8 to 10 strength training exercises with at least 12 repetitions of each exercise, twice a week (ACSM, 2007). Men and women in this current society are recommended to do the same amount of exercise or to take part in all sports they desire to.

The Difference in Sport

There are many changes that has made in sport through the decades. The first change is that sport is not directly link to religious beliefs or rituals. Religious beliefs are important to people’s lives however sport is now seen as an entertainment rather than worship and participants take part for personal gains rather than appeasement of god. The next difference to be found is that anybody can participate in an event or sport if they want to. Regardless, who they are and where they came from, their sex and race. Every contestant should face the same set of competitive condition. This is still a current issue in modern society however the issue is being controlled. In modern sports there are games such as boxing and martial arts however they are no games where participants fight to death or fight for survival like the prehistoric, Greek and Roman times, events that these are not part of society anymore. Elias and Dunning (1971) investigated into early Greek and Roman sports. The purpose was to find just how different the sport-like activities are between the people of the early stages in civilizing process and nation-state formation process. They found that Greek combat sports were all direct training for warfare involved in much higher levels of violence and open emotionality than sport today. Elias suggested that internalized inhibitions against physical violence were also lower and associated feelings of guilt and shame correspondingly much weaker.

Guttman (1978) found that within his comparison of sport from the past showed that organised, competitive sports to this present day have unique characteristics. He found that there are seven interrelated characteristics Secularism, Equality, Specialisation, Rationalisation, Bureaucratisation, Quantification and Records. From this study Guttman (1978) found that most of the Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance did in some way adhere to these characteristics however not all of them did. One or more of these traits have characterised the sport forms of previous historical periods, but until the 19th century never have all appeared together in a single sport form. This does not mean that modern organised competitive sports are superior to the games and activities of the past. It means that they are different in the way that they are organised. These seven characteristics are not found in all modern sports however sport are social constructions and many people seek alternatives to the organized competitive sport in which these seven characteristics exist.

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Sporting activities have never been so pervasive and influential in the lives of people as they are in many societies; never before have people had so much leisure time and never before have physical activities in any form been so closely linked to profit making, character building, patriotism and personal health (Coakley 1994). Organised sports have become a combination of business, entertainment, education, moral training, masculinity rituals, technology transfer and declaration of political allegiance. Although sports are contests in which people seek physical challenges and exciting expressive experiences seldom available in the rest of their lives (Coakley 1994). Overall all these things have made organised, competitive sports important social phenomena in the past and present. Most individuals do not do much of their favourite activities as often or as intensely as they would like, but there are some groups who are multiply constrained and they are also afflicted with below average health, diet, housing, education and job prospects (Collins 2003). Whereas leisure facilities, public and voluntary services, are over used by those with above average incomes (Collins 2003). The problem with the 21st century is that there is an increase in social breakdown, stress, depression, drug abuse, suicide, decay of communities, rural decline and loss of social cohesion (Trainer 2003). The rich, who do the top managerial and legal work for the corporations and the professionals are rapidly increasing their wealth, have no interest in change (Trainer 2003). Damage is being done to social cohesion, public spirit, trust, good will and concern for public interest (Trainer 2003). Society is made up of competitive, self interested individuals all trying to get rich. There is no concern for the welfare of all; there must be a considerable collective social control, regulation and service provision to maintain public institutions and standards and to reinforce the sense of social solidarity whereby all are willing to contribute to the good of all (Trainer 2003).

In historic times only the rich had a lot of leisure time therefore had plenty of time to participate in an activity whereas the lower class had to work most of their time as they did not get paid much so they did not have time to exercise. The only time that the lower class could exercise would be at festivals and holy days as they were used as village activities or if they were paid to compete in the games. Most sports in historic times were sports that not all generations could take part in for example, fox hunting and hunting for food. In present times factors that affect people participation are peer pressure from people involved in their lives. This is especially in children, if they take part in a sport that their friends don’t, the child may not want to go to the sport because they are missing time to be with their friends. The child may become uninterested in the sport as they grow older or parents pushing a child to do something may make the child rebel and not do the activities that the parents want them to. Factors that affect adults could be that they are at the peak stage and cannot go further, they may not have the time to commit due to family reasons, and they may feel singled out if they join a new exercise class. The biggest factor that will stop a person from participating in sport is any medical problem they may have. The medication they take to help with their condition may have side effects that can stop a person from participating in an activity.

Theoretical approach

There are two sociological theories that can be used to look at the history of sport, Conflict and Figurational theory. Coakley (1994) stated that the conflict theory focuses on how sport are used by powerful people to promote attitudes and relationships enabling them to maintain their power and privileges. An example of this power would be in the roman events, the emperor would pass fruit and bread around the stadium stop spectators becoming hostile. This power controlled the way the spectators acted at these sporting events. In roman times, sport was an emphasis of mass entertainment; this was to ignore the problems within society such as social, economic and political. The goal of most conflict theorists in sociology is to bring about the development of a humane and creative society so that sports can become sources of expression, creative energy and physical well being (Coakley 1994). The conflict theory contributes little to the understanding of the dynamics of gender and intergroup relations apart from their connection with class relations (Coakley 1994). Even though sports are sometimes used as instruments of economic control and expansion in society, it must also be recognised that sports can personally empower activities and sites for resisting and even transforming the way social life is organized (Coakley 1994). However Figurational theory looks how society has become civilised. This focuses on the relationship between power, behavior, emotion, and knowledge over time. Elias (1987) stated that the main objective for Figurational sociologist was to encourage sociologists to think processually by studying social relations as emerging and contingent processes. Figurations should be studied as interdependent relations which are continually in flux that shifts and transforms in patterns of social bonding that can be identified in all patterns of development. Moreover Elias believed that it is possible to discern such shifts because interdependence is neither arbitrary nor random. The individuals and groups that make up specific figuration are interconnected by a multiplicity of dynamic bonds (). Marxists however tend to stress the importance of economic relations in social bonding. Figurationalists suggest that the importance of economic relations is likely to vary from one situation to another and that in some situations political and emotional bonds may be equally or more significant (). The concept of the social bond is intended to reinforce to two edged character if figurations which may be both enabling and constraining (Rojek, 1985). A central dimension of figurations or dynamic interdependency ties is power, conceptualized not as a substance or property possessed by particular individuals and groups but as characteristics of all human relationships (Elias, 1987). Power is always a question of relative balances, never and absolute possession or absolute deprivation, for no one is ever absolutely powerful or absolutely powerless. Neither is the balance of power between groups in a society permanent for power balances are dynamic and continuously in flux (Coakley and Dunning, 2000). To use a theory for history in sport the Figurational theory would be more appropriate as it looks at the civilization of society and focuses on balancing history and structural analysis. It also looks at how sports have become more developed, for example, rules and regulations have become strict to provide an equal opportunity for participants to win. Figurational theory also shows how sports reflect the civilization process, whereas the conflict theory leads people to see sports simply as reflections of the economic forces operating in society. The conflict theory is all about deviance in sport and how people rebel against the rules. An example of this is the drug abuse in sports, the athlete chose to do it but they know that there are consequences if they are caught.


Overall this report has found that there have been many changes to sport through the centuries, rules and regulations, type of sport played and why sport is played have all changed. It has also been show that participation in historic time was events that the hole village or town attended, whereas in modern games and events people participate for personal gains. For a theoretical application the more appropriate theory has been show to be the Figurational theory as it shows how sports have become more developed via rules and regulation.


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