Every President’s Favorite Athlete of the 20th Century

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Gerald Ford takes the snap.
Gerald Ford takes the snap. (U.S. National Archives and Recor)
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Best athlete” discussions always make for an interesting debate in the sense that they’re always totally stupid and pointless and boundary-less, so you’re basically arguing about completely different things and no one ever gets anywhere. More than anything, if even anything, your idea of the best-ever athlete says something about you rather than anything about the history of sports.

So, the idea of Mitt Romney calling Jack Nicklaus the greatest athlete of the 20th century—which he only sort of did—would say a few things about the Republican presidential hopeful: he is sort of old, he is white, and he is rich. Which, check, check, check. But this didn’t actually happen, so it doesn’t really matter. Still, it got us wondering. If all American presidents had to pick their Best Athlete of the 20th Century, who would they choose?

George Washington: Chris Chelios

John Adams: Pete Rose

Thomas Jefferson: Anyone other than Shawn Kemp

James Madison: Phil Simms

James Monroe: Liberian soccer player George Weah

John Quincy Adams: Will Smith 

Andrew Jackson: John Rocker

Martin Van Buren: A tie between female Dutch long-track speed-skaters Ireen Wurst and Atje Keulen-Deelstra

William Henry Harrison: Colombian soccer player Carlos Valderamma

John Tyler: Ryan Leaf

James K. Polk: Raphael Palmeiro

Zachary Taylor: The Rock

Millard Fillmore: Gerry Philbin, defensive end for the 1969 New York Jets

Franklin Pierce: Former Finnish female soccer player Pauliina Miettinen 

James Buchanan: Wilt Chamberlain 

Abraham Lincoln: Detlef Schrempf 

Andrew Johnson: That squirrel that waterskied in a pool 

Ulysses S. Grant: Tommy Moe

Rutherford B. Hayes: Rebecca Lobo

James A. Garfield: Craig Stadler

Chester A. Arthur: Mullet-era Andre Agassi

Grover Cleveland: Kevin Greene

Benjamin Harrison: Fuzzy Zoeller

William McKinley: Claudio Reyna 

Theodore Roosevelt: Dennis Rodman

William Howard Taft: Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire

Woodrow Wilson: Orel Hersheiser 

Warren G. Harding: The Phoenix Suns mascot

Calvin Coolidge: Ray Borque

Herbert Hoover: Chuck Knoblauch

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Kelly Slater

Harry S. Truman: Greg Maddux

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Bill Romanowski

John F. Kennedy: Brian Scalabrine

Lyndon B. Johnson: Brad Johnson

Richard Nixon: Tony Hawk

Gerald Ford: Gerald Ford

Jimmy Carter: Rulon Gardner

Ronald Reagan: Norweigan biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen 

George H. W. Bush: Michelle Akers

Bill Clinton: Professional billiards player Janette Lee 

George W. Bush: Picabo Street

Barack Obama: A tie between Pele, Maradonna, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Steve Nash, Eric Heiden, Roger Federer, Evander Holyfield, Willie Mays, Dan Marino, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Neil Armstrong, Wayne Gretzky, Jesse Owens, Mario Lemieux, Michael Johnson, Pete Sampras, Larry Bird, Carl Lewis, Bjorn Borg, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Ryne Sandberg, Mia Hamm, Bob Burnquist, Jim Thorpe, Tiger Woods, Hulk Hogan, and Hank Aaron

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