The 1970s have been sport's intellectual decade. We have been swamped by every form of insight—from the healthful benefits of sport to its psychology to its use as a literary metaphor. But if we had more carefully gleaned the writings of Benjamin Franklin, much of this information would not be new at all; it would be the basic stuff of a school-child's primer.
Benjamin Franklin? That portly old fellow whose aphorisms taught thrift and prudence? The same. Ben Franklin, believe it or not, was an athlete.
Franklin grew stout in his later years only because he suffered from bladder stones, which prevented him from exercising and left him vulnerable to gout. As a young man, though, he had the slope-shouldered, smoothly muscled body of the excellent swimmer he was. In one of his first experiments, the teen-aged Franklin hoisted a kite while swimming and was pulled along by the wind. A few years later he swam 3½ miles down the Thames River from Chelsea to Blackfriars. What made the journey noteworthy was not the distance but the technique. Having learned all the known strokes. Franklin took the opportunity to publicly demonstrate those, as well as a few of his own, "aiming for the graceful and easy as well as the useful." Soon after, he toyed with the idea of becoming a full-time swimming instructor.
Franklin was as thoughtful about swimming as he was about everything else, and his views are especially pertinent in this era of Perfection through Jogging. Franklin understood that swimming is the one form of exercise everyone needs to learn for simple safety. In a letter to a friend, Oliver Neave, who despaired of learning to swim as an adult, Franklin proposed—what else?—an experiment: wade out to a spot where the water is chest-high and throw an egg back into slightly shallower water. Then dive for it, keeping your eyes open. "You will find that the water buoys you up against your inclination; that it is not so easy a thing to sink as you imagined." To his French friend Barbeu Dubourg, Franklin wrote, "After having swum for an hour or two in the evening, one sleeps cooly the whole night."
November 19, 1979
Franklin believed a good workout helped ward off disease. The subject of exercise was food for thought: "Want of exercise occasions want of appetite," he wrote during a long, confining ocean voyage, "so that eating and drinking afford but little pleasure." Franklin advocated lifting weights, sleeping in cold rooms and drinking great quantities of water (his colleagues in a British printing house called him the Water-American). These practices have been accepted today, but back when Franklin proposed them they were usually considered eccentric.
Indeed, Franklin's views on sport flew in the face of contemporary wisdom. The Puritans, for instance, believed that games were permissible only when used to teach religious lessons. Gamesman Franklin connected a healthy mind to a well-conditioned body, and he knew real from imagined conditioning: "There is more exercise in one mile's riding on horseback than in five in a coach." The amount of exercise, he said, should be judged not by time or distance but by "the degree of warmth it produces in the body," which he related to increased pulsebeat. Cardio-fitness centers of the 1970s have merely formalized Franklin's views.
The young Franklin built his friendships around sporting and intellectual competition. This practice cost him some buddies but provided us with acute observations. About checkers he said, "The persons playing ... ought not much to regard the consequence of the game, for that diverts and withdraws the attention of the mind from the game itself, and makes the player liable to make many false moves." This is just another way of stating the modern athlete's refrain: that to worry about pressure or score or any other external factor is to take one's mind off hitting the next pitch or catching the next pass.
Franklin played chess for several hours a night. His Morals of Chess should be read by every pawn pusher. Commenting on those who make false excuses for losing, Franklin wrote. "He who shelters himself under such untruths in trifling matters is no very sturdy moralist in things of greater consequence, where his fame and honour are at stake." Franklin preferred not to give moves back; he saw chess as a strict life-lesson on "the consequences of your rashness."
In the end, his example is as instructive as his thinking. "Franklin's life as an athlete went through three distinct stages," says Ormond Seavey, an assistant professor of history at George Washington University and a Franklin scholar. "As a young man he had an aggressive ego, which demonstrated itself in competition even with people he should have regarded as friends. Later he became a team player, at least in his thinking. At this point, you might say he had progressed from John McEnroe to Willie Stargell. Finally, he dealt gracefully and humorously with the decline of his body, particularly in his famous Dialogue with the Gout. A lot of athletes have had great difficulty in doing that."
But then, few people can aspire to the eminence of the man widely viewed as our greatest American: author, journalist, politician, statesman, inventor—and athlete.