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Not quite Olympic champs: The athletic pasts of Romney, Obama

July 27, 2012|By James Rainey
  • In this photo provided by the Oahuan yearbook of Punahou School, Barack Obama, second row center, is seen with his junior varsity basketball team in this 1977 yearbook class photo in Honolulu.
In this photo provided by the Oahuan yearbook of Punahou School, Barack… (Punahoe Schools / AP File…)

Glimpsing Mitt and Ann Romneyin the stands at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London, with Michelle Obama also in attendance, Americans doubtless will wonder (or not, but we’re going to write about it anyway) just how sporty and sporting the presidential candidates can be.

President Obama is known, like many presidents, for enjoying time away on the golf course, but also for mixing it up in fairly fierce basketball games with staffers and friends. Romney jokes about his lack of athleticism, though he competes each summer with his five sons and other family in the “Romney Olympics,” including a mini-triathlon and ….a nail-pounding contest?

Pressed by Fox News’ Neil Cavuto a couple months back about how he would match the president’s cool,  Romney suggested: “I don’t think I’ll play the president a round of golf, but I will take him to a waterski course.”  Rock  it, lads!

Romney and Obama’s biographies include what amount to athletic creation myths—the president’s on the basketball court and the former Massachusetts governor’s on a high school track at the end of a cross-country meet. Both tales suggest grit and perseverance more than raw talent.

Romney was in his senior year at the prestigious Cranbrook School in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills for his most-noted sporting challenge. A couple of the regulars on the school’s cross-country team were out of the homecoming week meet. So Romney had to step up. Mark W. Hendrickson, a school mate, wrote a piece for Forbes telling what happened:

“Mitt, who was further down the depth chart of a very strong team, would finally get to run in a varsity race. When the runners burst into view on the far side of the football field during halftime, Mitt astounded everyone by being near the lead. He had pushed himself to run the race of his life.

“But then, about 100-150 yards from the finish line, he reached his physical limit. Starved for oxygen, his legs started to shut down. His stride gave way to an unsteady stagger. Runners started to race past him. Then, winded and ashen, his face contorted in acute distress, he collapsed on the track some 30 yards from the finish line.”

“He could have quit and stopped the agony. He had nothing to gain, it seemed, for every other runner had passed him, but still he didn’t give up. Instead, he literally crawled and dragged himself yard after yard on the cinder track, until finally he crossed the finish line and received some first aid. It was a heroic effort.”

Hendrickson, who went on to be an economist, described quite a different Romney than the one other high school classmates described to the Washington Postas bullying some of his classmates, including one who stood out as effeminate. Hendrickson: “Lesson: When Mitt Romney is committed to something, he gives it his all. This guy has heart and spirit. He loved his school, his teammates, his coach, and his sport, and he gave them the very best he could.”

The Washington Post’s David Maraniss has written that basketball is much more than a sport to Obama: “Basketball is central to his self identity. It is global yet American-born, much like him. It is where he found a place of comfort, a family, a mode of expression, a connection from his past to his future.”

It also contributes to a more winning narrative than the one of the pot-smoking, academically unfocused Obama—a slice of his youth that Obama himself wrote about in his autobiography.

Basketball also became a crucible for cementing his relationship with Michelle. Working as a lawyer in Chicago at the time, the future first lady had been dating her colleague, Obama, when she asked her brother, Craig, to take the new guy out and see what he was really about. Obama had described himself as a legit player, though certainly not of the stature of Craig Robinson, a 6-foot-6 star at Princeton who got drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. (He now coaches at Oregon State.)

“When I played basketball with Barack, he was quietly confident, which means he had good self-esteem without being cocky,” Robinson told Chuck Klosterman of Esquire. “He was certainly a team player — he wasn't a pig, he passed when he was supposed to pass, and he cut when he was supposed to cut. To me, that speaks to a lack of selfishness. He had natural leadership ability, because he didn't just pass me the ball because he was dating my sister. Whenever a player gets tired, he reverts back to the player he truly is. That's how you tell. And we played for hours. That's how I could tell."

The closest tie to the competitions in England, though, will not come from either the man who is president or the man who wants to be. Ann Romney gets that nod. The equestrian events begin Saturday and the horse Ann Romney co-owns, Rafalca, is scheduled to compete in dressage.  Her husband has kept a bit of distance publicly from the sport, doubtless so as not to fuel his already patrician image.

Not that there is no chance of one of the sporting pols taking in an event during the Games. Olympic organizers say they have gamed out a scenario whereby a foreign dignitary with a very large entourage shows up for the gold medal basketball game between as-yet-unknown teams. One London paper thinks the team might be the U.S.and the surprise fan might be President Obama.

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