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The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete By Ryan Swanson

Release date: 16th December, 2020
Publisher: Diversion Books

List Price: £16.99
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In the summer of my final year at university in the early 1980s, the university’s first and second teams embarked upon a four-week football tour of the USA and Canada, an adventure still talked about among those of us fortunate enough to have travelled.

The tour came about after a few of us had worked on US summer camps the previous year and made friends with Americans our own age, mostly students also attending university, many of whom were keen to host an ‘English soccer XI’ . And so, following a reception and send-off by the FA at Lancaster Gate no less, we departed for the States in matching blazers intent on conquering America.

Every college we visited (we played more than 20 matches) boasted facilities the quality of which comfortably surpassed those found at England’s top flight football clubs. Much of the credit for the States’ long term investment and success in sport is attributed to President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt.

According to author Ryan Swanson, during the time Roosevelt occupied the White House (1901-09) “modern sports emerged in America”.

Roosevelt arrived at Capitol Hill a keen sportsman. He suffered from a debilitating asthma as a child, but encouraged by his father, overcame the disease and would later box at Harvard; he remained a keen tennis player while in office.

That Roosevelt experienced first-hand the benefits of an active lifestyle played a significant part in his desire to ensure all of America’s youngsters benefited to the same degree. Fortunately, the President’s innate drive and sporting passion coincided with the USA’s awakening to the value of athletics.

During the late nineteenth century as the US underwent an agrarian revolution, millions of Americans moved from farming into ever-expanding cities and increasingly sedentary jobs. Parks, gyms and playing fields were, initially at least, rare; PE didn’t even form part of the state schools’ (known as public schools in the US) curriculum.

Roosevelt’s preoccupation with sport was instrumental in changing this. He was ably assisted by men including Luther Gulick, who promoted fitness in schools, and James Naismith (a student of Gulick’s) who developed the game of basketball.

The Strenuous Life isn’t a book about politics, though they inevitably muscle in to a brilliant story of how politicians can effect change for the better. America’s education system has benefited as a result.

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