Durkheim, Competitive Interaction, and the Best: Explaining the State-Origins of U.S. Olympians Academic Article uri icon


  • Durkheims theory of the causes of specialization in society proposes that the best performers should come from places with the most competitive interaction. This paper tests this proposition in an arena where interaction is highly competitive and where performance can be objectively measured, organized athletics in the United States. Four state-level indicators of competitive interaction (population, population density, average school size, and racial diversity) are used to predict the number of Olympic athletes developing in each state for the Olympic years 1956, 1968, 1980, and 1992. Net of controls for opportunities in athletics, results show that the number of Olympians developing in states increases exponentially with population, average high school size, and racial homogeneity, as Durkheimian theory suggests. These findings are robust even with controls for unmeasured state differences. I conclude that holding constant opportunity, states with more interaction among athletes produce more of the best. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

published proceedings

  • Sociological Focus

author list (cited authors)

  • Goldsmith, P. A.

citation count

  • 1

complete list of authors

  • Goldsmith, Pat Antonio

publication date

  • January 2000