The first known democracy in the world was in classical Athens, which started to develop a system of government involving the participation of citizens from the fifth century BC onwards. However, the definition of a “citizen” was restrictive compared to today, with only adult, free male citizens entitled to vote. Women, current and freed slaves, foreign residents in Athens and children did not participate.
For almost the entire classical period of Ancient Greece (500-336 BC), athletics was an exclusive pastime of the upper class, as noted by David M. Pritchard (University of Queensland in Australia) in his journal 'Sport and Democracy in Classical Athens' (published by Cambridge University Press in February 2017.)
According to Pritchard, athletics remained a largely elite pursuit despite this opening up of politics. Nonetheless, common people considered it a positive thing and supported pro-sport policies and expenditure.
Pritchard argues that the cultural overlap between war and sport could account for this. Athenians viewed war and sport in identical terms; for example, both were described as “contests,” “toils” and “dangers.”
In the sixth century BC, before Athenian democracy, war was largely an elite pursuit. However, in the next century, there was the creation of a public army and military service for all social strata. Non-elites now had personal experiences of war, which they viewed as akin to sport, encouraging them to empathise with athletes.
In the classical period’s last decade (the mid-330s), the Athenian dēmos (common people) belatedly took steps to open up sporting participation, largely to socialise them into the values of war.
Professor Paul Christesen, in his book 'Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds', said there was a correlation between the advent of mass sports participation in 19th-century Britain and the granting of political rights to the middle class.
Self-governed "horizontal sport", as Christesen wrote, promoted the concept of teams and clubs, levelling social relations between people. It also acted as a force against discrimination.
Dictatorships have also used competitive events as a form of propaganda, as seen in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This was done to divert attention from controversial actions.
More recently, sporting sanctions have sometimes been used to put pressure on autocratic regimes, for example by excluding teams and athletes from that country from participating in competitions. This was done with apartheid South Africa between 1961 and the early 1990s, and sporting sanctions are currently being imposed on Russia over the war in Ukraine.