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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Oct 4, 2019

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, I speak with historian Ryan Swanson about his new book, The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt in the Making of the American Athlete.

To say that the US is a sports-obsessed nation would be an understatement to say the least. Just consider some numbers:
* In 2019 the four major sports leagues – NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL - will rake in revenues in excess of $28 billion.
* Americans will illegally bet more than $150 billion on college and professional sports.
* And this year about 45 million children in the US will participate in competitive sports.

I could go on, but you get the point. All this obsession with sports raises an interesting question: How did it happen? Well, historical trends are always driven by multiple causes. And in the case of our obsession with sports, one of those factors was the influence of Theodore Roosevelt.

While we often associate Theodore Roosevelt with military exploits in the Spanish American War, efforts to conserve the environment and natural resources, and struggles to enact progressive social legislation, Theodore Roosevelt should also be remembered for his promotion of sports and physical fitness.

Ryan Swanson is an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico. He’s the author of several books on sports history, including When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Past Time.

He’s with me today to discuss his latest work, The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt in the Making of the American Athlete.

In the course of our discussion, Ryan Swanson explains:

How Theodore Roosevelt used athletics to overcome childhood infirmity including asthma.

How the story of Roosevelt remaking his body became a key part of his public persona as a man of zeal, courage, and accomplishment.

Why Theodore Roosevelt and many other Americans in the Gilded Age grew concerned that the nation was growing soft and effeminate, and that one solution – short of a war -  was athletics.

How Roosevelt used tennis during his presidency as a way to stay fit and to conduct his personal brand of politics.

How Roosevelt’s love of football helped save the game when critics condemned it as dangerous and called for its abolition.

And how in this era, promoters of physical fitness created the bond between education and sports that exist to this day.

Recommended reading

Ryan Swanson, The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt in the Making of the American Athlete (Diversion Books, 2019)

Richard O. Davies, Sports in American Life: A History

Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America

Michael MacCambridge, America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation

John J. Miller, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

Dave Revsine, The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation

Steven A. Riess and Thomas G. Paterson, eds., Major Problems in American Sport History

More info about Ryan Swanson - website

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Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Jason Shaw, “Acoustic Meditation” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

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