Oval Office Athletes: Presidents and the Sports They Played

Oval Office Athletes: Presidents and the Sports They Played

From Gerald Ford's football days to Barack Obama's basketball game to George W. Bush's impressive marathon splits, many presidents have shown athletic prowess.

From George Washington, who was a skilled horseman, to Donald Trump, whose longtime passion is golf, most U.S. presidents played various sports in their youth, and many continued their athletic pursuits while in the White House.

“Presidents tend to be extraordinarily competitive,” explains Curt Smith, a former speechwriter in the George H.W. Bush White House and author of the 2018 book The Presidents and the Pastime: A History of Baseball & the White House.

A sporting event and a political campaign tend to have comparable ups and downs, he says, so it’s only natural that the same sort of personality would be drawn to both. “They both demand that you marshal all of your resources—intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual,” he says.

A president’s choice of physical pastimes often reveal a lot about character and leadership style, says John Sayle Watterson, author of The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency (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.A young Abraham Lincoln splitting logs circa 1830 in Illinois.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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.

 

Presidents-Athletes-Teddy-Roosevelt-Getty-1035548908Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

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 what he lacked in skill. Even after becoming president, Roosevelt engaged in sparring sessions with some of his White House aides and other opponents.

In Roosevelt’s autobiography, he recalled that the White House fight club came to an end after he squared off with a young Army artillery captain, who countered one of Roosevelt’s punches and gave him a permanent eye injury.

“The sight has been dim ever since,” Roosevelt admitted. “Accordingly, I thought it better to acknowledge that I had become an elderly man and would have to stop boxing.” But not one to give up combat sports completely, Roosevelt then switched to learning the Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu.

 

FDR swimming in the pool at his Hyde Park home in 1932.FDR swimming in the pool at his Hyde Park home in 1932. Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images