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Presidents and sports: How does Obama stack up?

The president-elect, an avid basketball player, has a good jump shot. Bill Clinton was creative with his scoring on the golf course. Richard Nixon liked bowling, while Herbert Hoover was a fanatical trout fisherman.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent / January 16, 2009

Drive to the basket: Barack Obama scrimmaged once with the University of North Carolina basketball team during the campaign.

Jae C. Hong/AP

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Charlotte, N.C.

Inauguration Day means more than a change in power. It also heralds the arrival of a new First Athlete, not to mention First Fan.

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In a sports-obsessed nation filled with baby boomers striving to stave off excess calories, it’s little surprise that the men we’ve sent to the White House often embody those same traits. Presidents routinely joke about their golf handicaps, host star athletes as they celebrate Super Bowl titles and World Series wins, toss out ceremonial first pitches, and revel in the nonpartisan glories of sports.

It all started, as so many things in modern America did, with Theodore Roosevelt. Our 26th president brought a vigorous lifestyle to Washington, including a love of hunting, hiking, boxing, wrestling, and almost anything else represented in the Sweaty Arts.

“Theodore Roosevelt believed we needed to keep physically fit as a nation and made it part of the crusade of his presidency,” says Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University in Houston. “And it’s sort of stuck ever since. It used to be, up until Theodore Roosevelt, that intellectual activity used to be what the general public focused on: what poets did [presidents] know, how many languages did they speak.”

Even in Roosevelt’s day, passion for sports included a mix of genuine love and image-making. Roosevelt loved tennis but believed it “was a game that the American people would perceive as effete,” says biographer Edmund Morris. In that vein, “he was very private about his tennis and didn’t like to be seen or photographed playing tennis.” Nonetheless, he installed the first White House tennis court and his key advisers became known as the tennis cabinet.

Though there are a few exceptions (hello, LBJ), nearly every president of the past century has brought an affinity for some form of exercise or competition to the Oval Office, along with a willingness to while away precious down time taking in games as a fan.

From George H.W. Bush’s speed golfing to JFK’s touch football, presidents have long sought escape in the sports world. By some estimates, FDR spent nearly a quarter of his four-term presidency on the water, pursuing his beloved yachting avocation. Ronald Reagan lifted weights as president and bragged of saving 77 lives as an Illinois lifeguard to his last day.

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Some presidents went beyond weekend-warrior status. The elder Bush captained the Yale baseball team as a first baseman, while Gerald Ford’s college football career at the University of Michigan included two national championships and elicited contract offers from two NFL franchises. Ford opted for law school.

Dwight Eisenhower was never the golfer JFK was, but he may have loved the game more than any other president. He later became a member at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the famed Masters tournament.

Now comes Barack Obama, already well documented as an avid basketball player and devoted backer of his hometown Chicago White Sox. During a recent press conference, the president-elect somberly discussed the nation’s economic woes while pausing for an aside on why Florida’s defeat of Oklahoma in the national championship game only whetted his appetite for a playoff system in college football.

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