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Oval Office Athletes: Presidents and the Sports They Played

January 29, 2019 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

From Gerald Ford’s football days to Barack Obama’s basketball game to George W. Bush’s impressive marathon splits, many presidents were also impressive athletes.

From George Washington, who was a (2006).

Presidents such as George H.W. Bush or Dwight Eisenhower who’ve played team sports, for example, tend to have a team approach to the presidency, relying more heavily upon cabinet secretaries and White House staffers for their counsel, Watterson says.

In contrast, a president such as Herbert Hoover, whose main interest was the solitary sport of fishing, may be more inclined to go it alone—to his potential detriment. “Hoover, if he had played football or been a team player in some other sport, might have had a different approach,” Watterson says.

Here are 11 presidents and the sports that helped define them.

A young Abraham Lincoln splitting logs circa 1830 in Illinois.

Abraham Lincoln

After moving to Illinois as a young man, Abraham Lincoln developed an impressive reputation as an amateur wrestler, according to Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Vol. 1. In the early 1830s, a saloonkeeper bet the owner of a general store where Lincoln worked $10 that Lincoln couldn’t beat Jack Armstrong, the champion of a nearby town. A match was arranged, and people came from miles around to a town square near the store, where they bet money, tobacco, drinks and other items of value on the contest.

As the two men grappled, the short, muscular Armstrong tried to get in close and overpower Lincoln, but Lincoln—who despite his wiry build, was renowned for his strength—held him off with his long arms.

Finally, Lincoln threw Armstrong and pinned his shoulders to the ground. Armstrong’s friends, angry at the defeat, confronted Lincoln, who told them he would fight, wrestle or run a race against any of them. Armstrong finally diffused the tension by shaking Lincoln’s hand and declaring him the winner, fair and square. The two men eventually became good friends. The tenacity and resolve that Lincoln developed through wrestling undoubtedly came in handy when he had to lead the Union in the Civil War.

Theodore Roosevelt

After a sickly childhood, Teddy Roosevelt determinedly built up his body with vigorous exercise. As a college student, according to a 1957 Harvard Crimson article, Roosevelt began entering in boxing tournaments, where he made up in fierceness and ability to withstand punishment …read more


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