Blog
Though finally taking place in Summer 2021, the Tokyo Summer Olympics were scheduled for 2020 and were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
July 25, 2021

The Olympics and US Presidents

The arrival of the belated Summer Olympic Games offers an opportunity to reflect upon the sportier U.S. presidents who, like the Olympics, abide by a four-year schedule. Presidents are no strangers to the Olympics, and more generally, have had an affinity for sports.

One of the most avid sportsmen of all the presidents was probably Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt secured the first Olympic Games to be held in the United States, which took place in St. Louis in 1904. But the Games were a flop – Roosevelt never attended and only 12 foreign athletes participated.[1] 

Not surprisingly, golf is perenially popular among presidents. William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding (-no relation to Tonya Harding-) all enjoyed a good game of golf. Taft was a terrible golfer, but he hit the links almost every day. He even had a so-called “Golf Cabinet” that included his Vice President James Sherman.[3] Wilson played more golf than any other president – more than 1200 rounds during his presidency! Harding played golf after he voted on election day in 1920.[5]

Herbert Hoover loved baseball, and even played shortstop at Stanford until he dislocated his finger. While the Great Depression torpedoed Hoover’s presidency, In 1930, Babe Ruth defended his own unprecedented $80,000 yearly salary – higher than Hoover’s – by saying, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.”[8] The 1932 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles, but Hoover declined to attend, choosing instead to focus on his reelection. It didn’t help – Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt and did not even carry California. [9]

FDR played football in his younger years, participated in crew during his time at Harvard, and enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities.[10] But regarding the Olympics, he is probably best remembered for his snub of Jesse Owens. Owens once said, “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.[11] 

Dwight D. Eisenhower had a fascinating history with sports and one well-known Olympian. In 1912, Ike’s military career was nearly cut short after he injured his knee in a West Point football game. The injury occurred when he tried to tackle Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest Olympian of all time.[12] He also loved baseball, and according to the NY Times, Eisenhower claimed to have played minor league baseball under the assumed name of “Wilson.”[13]

John F. Kennedy shared Eisenhower’s love for golf, if not much else. (The two had a cool relationship.) But when it came to the Olympics, JFK was outshined by his sister, Eunice, who organized the Special Olympics in 1968.

Tokyo last hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, and Lyndon Johnson made sure Americans could watch their athletes get the better of Soviet athletes. He ordered the use of NASA’s Syncom II satellite to allow for coverage of the Games, the first time they were broadcast internationally.[15]

Jimmy Carter competed in high school tennis and track and field.[16] He wasn’t much of a fan of baseball, but he loved to play softball.[17] And he was no stranger to Olympic controversy. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter organized an international boycott of Moscow’s 1980 Summer Games.

Ronald Reagan was never much of an athlete; he was a high school swimmer. But prior to his acting career, he earned his stripes as a radio sportscaster. He recreated Chicago Cubs games and called Big Ten football games.[18] Reagan also became the first president to attend the opening of the Summer Games, which he did in L.A. in 1984. 

As we all enjoy the camaraderie of this year’s postponed summer Olympic Games, let us all hope that the next time we watch them it will be an even-numbered year.

 

[1] Olivia B. Waxman, “A Brief History of U.S. Presidents and the Olympics,” Time, July 24, 2012, https://swampland.time.com/2012/07/27/a-brief-history-of-u-s-presidents-and-the-olympics/.

[2] “Rare William Howard Taft Autograph Letter as President: He’s Happy to Meet After His Daily (Golf) Game,” December 3, 1911, Item #262, https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/william-howard-taft-presidency-golf/ and “‘Big Bill’ Taft, Happily Golfing, Relates His Post-Presidential Loss of Eighty Pounds,” April 10, 1914, Item #1286, https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/taft-golf-weight-loss-butt-memorial/

[3] John Fischer, “In Golf, President Taft Finds a National Treasure,” Morning Read, December 9, 2019, https://www.morningread.com/news-opinion/feature/2019-12-09/in-golf-president-taft-finds-a-national-treasure

[4] “President Woodrow Wilson: Lonely in the White House,” August 13, 1915, Item #128, https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/woodrow-wilson-white-house/ and Ronald G. Shafer, “This president played more golf than any other. And it’s not Trump.” Washington Post, April 6, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/04/06/this-president-played-more-golf-than-any-other-its-not-trump/

[5] Dave Shedlosky, “Did you know: This U.S. president played golf after voting on Election Day,” Golf Digest, November 2, 2020, https://www.golfdigest.com/story/did-you-know-warren-g-harding-played-golf-after-he-voted-on-election-day-in-1920.

[8] Joel Treese, “President Herbert Hoover and Baseball,” The White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/president-herbert-hoover-and-baseball

[9] Waxman.

[10] “Facts & Figures: FDR,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/fdr-facts.

[11] Larry Schwartz, “Owens Pierced a Myth,” ESPN, http://www.espn.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html

[12] Greg Botelho, “Roller-coaster life of Indian icon, sports’ first star,” CNN, July 14, 2004, https://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/europe/07/09/jim.thorpe/

[13] Michael Beschloss, “Eisenhower’s Baseball Secret,” New York Times, July 18, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/upshot/eisenhowers-baseball-secret.html

[14] “Eisenhower & Kennedy: Eisenhower Writes JFK a Chilly Letter After Losing the 1960 Election,” December 16, 1960, Item #703, https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/eisenhower-jfk-correspondence/

[15] Waxman.

[16] Patrick J. Kiger, “Oval Office Athletes: Presidents and the Sports They Played,” January 29, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/us-presidents-athletes

[17] President Jimmy Carter Baseball Game Attendance Log, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/prz_cjc.shtml.

[18] Lou Cannon, “Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency,” https://millercenter.org/president/reagan/life-before-the-presidency.

Add to History Board Share Print