JFK’s passion for sports

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If you happened to be perusing the magazine racks in the winter of 1960, you would have come across the December 26 issue of Sports Illustrated, featuring a tanned and fit-looking John F. Kennedy on its cover.

Modestly priced at 35 cents (it’s now selling for $20 on eBay), the issue featured a glamorous cover-shot of the grinning President-elect, standing in a motorboat behind his ever-demure wife Jackie, and included a three-page article penned by Kennedy during a visit to Palm Beach after his victory.

In an earnest piece entitled “The Soft American,” the President took a historical look at the role physical fitness played in the martial success of history’s great empires – Greece, Rome and Britain – and bemoaned the declining levels of physical fitness in the U.S. “The physical vigour of our citizens is one of America’s most precious resources,” wrote Kennedy, “If we waste and neglect this resource, if we allow it to dwindle and grow soft then we will destroy much of our ability to meet the great and vital challenges which confront our people. We will be unable to realize our full potential as a nation.”

Kennedy certainly practiced what he preached. He never wasted or neglected his physical vigour and loved to particpate in sports, attend big matches and surround himself with leading athletes of the time. The article gave the American public an early indication of the huge importance their virile young leader placed in athletics.

Defined by sports

Playing, or at least watching, sports was then (and still remains) an essential aspect of the American experience. Here in Canada, our prime ministers generally rise through the flabby ranks of university debating clubs and legal firms. The U.S. electorate prefers its leaders to be more robust. And no president played, followed or unabashedly enjoyed sports more than did John F. Kennedy. It could be said he was a man ruled by his passions, whether it was politics, lust, family, faith – or sports.


All-American boy

Anybody who grew up during the Camelot era will remember the nostalgic videos of the fresh-faced Kennedy boys swimming or playing football at the family’s Cape Cod compound. Young JFK, as did most boys of his time, played football and baseball in high school. Always hyper-competitive, he later became a champion swimmer for Harvard, a sport which came in very hand when his Patrol Boat was famously rammed by a Japanese destroyer in World War II. In an incident that became part of the JFK lore (read the amazing account here), Lt. Kennedy was able to swim through the wreckage 5 km to a nearby island, pulling the seriously injured Patrick McMahon along behind him. He continued to love swimming the rest of his life. Even as president, he would take time out for lengthy swims in the ocean, like the one described in this Aug. 23, 1962, L.A. Times story.

Kennedy was also a fanatical golfer, a prerequisite for all U.S. leaders. At the time, golf was perceived as an elitist sport and JFK took great pains to hide the fact he played often, and played well. That he suffered from severe back pain didn’t deter the president from getting in his rounds. In 2009, Golf Digest rated him No. 1 in their list of Golfing Presidents, a decision no doubt made easier by this fascinating 1963 footage of Kennedy playing a round at the family summer retreat in Hyannis Port, Mass.


The young man and the sea

But above all else, there was sailing, a sport loved by all Kennedys but particularly JFK. He grew up sailing and took to the seas whenever he could, often aboard his 62-foot yacht, officially named Manitou but known to just about everyone else as The Floating Whitehouse. Kennedy preferred smaller sailboats, especially the Victura, a gift he received on his 15th birthday present from his father. The Victura was always his favourite and it was on her that he taught Jackie and other family members to sail.

In a telling speech at the America’s Cup in 1962, Kennedy attempted to explain the allure that sailing had to him throughout his lifetime:

“…it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.

Kennedy and hockey

Kennedy was also a big fan of baseball (the Washington Senators) and, being a formal Naval hero, took great joy in attending the annual Army-Navy football game. And while he does not appear to have been an avid follower of hockey, a curious recording recently came to light showing he did have some interest in our national game.

In the 1963 World Hockey Championships, the U.S. side lost to Sweden 17-2, a result that infuriated the President. After reading about the result in the newspaper, he called a White House aide wondering how such a national embarrassment could have happened. Because it came during the Cold War, any sporting defeat – even at this relatively obscure event – took on incredibly heightened importance.

“Who are we sending over there?” the President asked his flustered aide. “Girls?” He then demanded that it never happen again. A competitive sportsman through and through, defeat never did rest lightly on the shoulders of John F. Kennedy.