Invictus Games Joe Biden London 2012

Special Analysis: Joe Biden’s Long Run To the Oval Office – Sport and the Making Of A US President

By Michael Pirrie | November 30, 2020

“As much as I lacked confidence in my ability to communicate verbally, I always had confidence in my athletic ability,” Joe Biden.

 As Joe Biden’s transition to power formally begins, Michael Pirrie explores how sport helped the President-elect to find his confidence and his voice, and says Biden’s agenda will have a major impact on sport in America and internationally, including the Olympic Games.

“There is often a time, tide and rhythm to human affairs and events, when small things can mean a lot and help to connect the past, present and future –  on and off the sporting field. Just ask Joe Biden.”

When travelling with Seb Coe while promoting the London 2012 Olympic Games, paths crossed with then US Vice President, Biden, who, in a warm exchange with Coe quipped he might be president if he had the British running legend’s ample head of hair.

Coe, the multiple British Olympic medallist, world record holder and President of World Athletics, has now been joined in presidential standing by Biden following the most consequential US election of modern times – an epic hair raising victory with a personal backstory full of telling sporting connections, turning points, and overtones.

As well as sharing presidential titles, Biden and Coe share a deep belief in sport and the values and psychology of sport, which has helped to guide their life journeys and who they are as people and leaders.

SPEAKING OF SPORT   

Sport has been a constant background theme in Joe Biden’s life, helping to anchor and connect Biden in his youth; find his voice; give him something to say and courage to say it. His sport-inspired belief in himself would ultimately help to deliver his presidential destiny. 

“The strength and confidence Biden found from sport in his early life enabled the President-Elect to speak to America and the world with firm eloquence.”

Indeed, the strength and confidence Biden found from sport in his early life enabled the President-Elect to speak to America and the world with firm eloquence about the need to heal and unite in his powerful presidential acceptance presentation. 

 “As much as I lacked confidence in my ability to communicate verbally, I always had confidence in my athletic ability,” Biden recalls in his memoir.

“Sports were as natural to me as speaking was unnatural. And sports turned out to be my ticket to acceptance – and more.”

That confidence from sport would turn a full circle for Biden decades later when he addressed the Association of National Olympic Committees in the US political capital in 2015; his remarks striking a strong chord with IOC members, contributing to the eventual return of the world’s premier sporting event, the Olympic Games, back to Los Angeles in 2028.

Biden and Coe, a prominent British Parliamentary figure after his stellar sporting career, also share a similar consensus building approach to politics, sport, management, and reform, along with an understated humour in dealing with adversity and success.

BIDEN’S LONG HOME RUN

The tumultuous US election aftermath has overshadowed Biden’s monumental Lazarus-like comeback, as compelling as any sporting triumph over hardship and adversity. Biden approached his presidential campaign like sport.

A keen MLB, NFL and NBA fan, who played football and baseball in his youth, Biden smashed a series of campaign curve balls out of the election ball park – and out of the courts – knocking out light towers along the way and plunging the Trump team into darkness.

Biden’s come-from-behind victory was a slow but steady marathon to the Oval Office. After striking out in two previous campaigns Biden came out swinging, hitting more than 270 golden Electoral College home runs needed to win the presidential season decider.

While Biden may have lacked Coe’s full head of hair, the ageing political warrior kept his head at critical stages. Drawing on inner reserves of resilience and discipline developed while playing sport in his youth, Biden was able to absorb a series of political body blows and personal attacks that many observers thought might have overwhelmed the ageing presidential contender.  

After a lifetime of public service and campaigning, Biden stuck to his game plan and made the winning touchdown – just like he did in high school.

TRUE BELIEVER 

The lean, rangy and bolt upright athlete’s physique from Biden’s youth was still apparent in his sprint to the podium finish line for his acceptance speech – a lingering legacy from his high school days as a talented football half back and wide receiver.

While an association with sport has become traditional for presidential candidates, sport has been more than a political prop for Biden on his long journey from youngest senator to oldest president.

Biden seems almost as comfortable at the Football World Cup, Olympics and major international, domestic and local league events as in a United States Senate committee hearing.

While never reaching Coe’s Olympic gold medal heights, which Coe set for himself as a 12 year old, sport was also a powerful presence in Biden’s formative years. 

“Biden’s early football success gave him the confidence and reassurance to tackle his stuttering with determination and therapy.”

Blessed with a good turn of speed and spatial awareness, Biden was a key player in his undefeated senior year football season where he learnt the power of working in a team operation and environment. This would prove vital to Biden’s future career and a hallmark of his political instincts and style, seeking common ground, goals and compromise.

While Biden called time on a promising football career to concentrate on his legal studies, sport helped to shape his character and approach to life. Faced with a childhood speaking disability, a young Biden learnt that actions could speak louder than words on the sports field.

Biden’s early football success gave him the confidence and reassurance to tackle his stuttering with determination and therapy, which involved many hours of reciting poetry in front of a mirror. 

INNER ATHLETE

The confidence Biden found from sport was a turning point in his life. “I wasn’t easily intimidated in a game, so even when I stuttered, I was always the kid who said ‘give me the ball,’” according to the memoir.

Biden scored the most touchdowns in his conference winning team, and has remained connected to his high football glory days through team reunions and other personal contact. Speaking at the induction of his former coach into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2012, Biden, then US Vice-President to President Obama, recalled the enduring influence of sport and his former coach.

“(He) urged us to play the game the same way you lived your life, with passion and integrity.”

“Biden understands the unique role sport can play as a hidden social worker and teacher in struggling communities as well as improving health outcomes and rebuilding neighbourhoods and race relations.”

“No matter how good you were, coach always stressed that you were a teammate first.”

Like Coe, Biden understands the unique role sport can play as a hidden social worker and teacher in struggling communities as well as improving health outcomes and rebuilding neighbourhoods and race relations.

STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA 

These areas were reflected in Biden’s campaign policies, including affordable health care and education along with racial equality and justice, and attracted strong support from across the sporting spectrum.

This included several global US household sports stars and brands, from NBL legends Magic Johnson and LeBron James to veteran tennis icon Billie Jean King and Olympic figure skating champion Michelle Kwan and legions of their fans.  

Biden found his political calling and presidential future fighting for improved conditions and opportunities for families, residents and communities in his home state of Delaware and beyond, including Pennsylvania, his birth state, where he secured his historic presidential victory.

The Pennsylvania count included Philadelphia, where, more than 25 years after the highly acclaimed movie of the same name depicted the devastation caused by the HIV-AIDS virus, the screaming spread of the corona virus across America is now Biden’s most urgent task.

RESETTING SPORT

While the primary duty of a nation’s leader is to protect its citizens, Biden’s battle against COVID, if successful, will save lives and reduce crippling levels of death, disease and hospitalisation. This will help to revive key sectors of the US economy and society, including sport.

Curbing the virus will enhance biosecurity at sporting venues, events and competition protocols.

“Hopes remain high that the White House under Biden will help to calm the political, social and economic turbulence triggered by Covid and political uncertainty in global sectors.”

Essential infrastructure and services for sport such as air travel, ground transport, training facilities, accommodation and hospitality will be less dangerous for athletes, staff and fans.

Containing the COVID pandemic in America will also enhance the confidence of visiting athletes, international sports federations and local host city communities in the safety of planning and operations for major global events scheduled for the US in coming years.

These include some of the world’s biggest sporting spectacles such as the 2026 FIFA Football World Cup, which America will co-host with Canada and Mexico, and the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles, where COVID infections have soared in recent weeks.

WORLD POLITICS, SPORT & OLYMPIC BOYCOTTS

Hopes remain high that the White House under Biden will help to calm the political, social and economic turbulence triggered by Covid and political uncertainty in global sectors, including international sport.

Biden’s election will be welcomed by world sports leaders like Coe, IOC President Thomas Bach, who Biden has previously met, and the wider international sports movement. 

While Biden has said little about his position on US-China relations, the new American president is unlikely to support calls for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, despite rising trade, security and human rights tensions amongst the US and its allies, which include several the world’s strongest Olympic nations. 

Biden is an internationalist by temperament and respects international conventions, institutions, and organisations, like the IOC and Olympic Movement.

Olympic sport also offers Biden rare potential common ground for cooperation and engagement with China, while a Beijing Games boycott could rebound on the 2028 LA Games, which Biden supported as former Vice President.

“Biden understands the international language and influence of sport in foreign relations and in rebuilding US alliances.”

I recall witnessing Biden’s trusted mentor, former US President Barak Obama, and First Lady, Michelle Obama, lobby IOC members in Copenhagen to bring the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago.

It was a strong and impressive pitch reinforced by Obama’s presence in the first year of his historic presidency, which proved a security nightmare as IOC members rushed the presidential couple for personal signatures and photos.

The experience for athletes and the technical, commercial and media benefits offered by the Chicago bid were also impressive and deserved much better than a first round knock out, with Obama later casting doubt on the integrity of the selection process and senior members of the successful Rio de Janeiro bid faced corruption and bribery charges, some still before the courts.

While the IOC’s Olympic host city election process may have been harder for Obama to win than US presidential elections, the failure of his adopted home city of Chicago, following New York’s unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, led to deep introspection in US-IOC relations, which Biden has helped to heal.

Looking beyond the disappointment of the New York and Chicago defeats, Biden, when addressing the 2015 meeting of national Olympic committees and leaders, praised IOC members for their dedication to sport, which he described as “the single unifying principle in the world.”

Biden understands the international language and influence of sport in foreign relations and in rebuilding US alliances, another key focus for his administration, and is likely to support new bids for major international events in America when the pandemic begins to subside.

INVICTUS

These are likely to include the Olympic style Invictus Games for war-injured athletes and personnel from nations involved in modern theatres of war. Invictus is the sporting event that Biden and the next First Lady Jill Biden have been most visibly associated in recent times, and the event and community the next first couple feel closest. 

While working on the 2016 Invictus Games in Florida, a year after Biden’s eldest son and Iraq war veteran Beau Biden died of cancer, I also witnessed the genuine personal warmth and affection with which the Bidens embraced the event and participants.

The Bidens passionately support the Invictus vision to use sport to help the recovery of war injured men and women and heal nations injured by war.

“Biden will also support better treatment of athletes by national sports governing bodies and strong action by world governing organisations in the fight against doping and other scourges in sport.”

The patron of the Invictus Games, Prince Harry of England, who now lives in California, has formed a close relationship with the Bidens, along with Sir Keith Mills, a leading figure in the London 2012 Olympic Games and architect of Invictus.

The Prince and Mills could be among the first foreign guests invited to the new Biden White House to discuss another Invictus Games, which was originally based on US Warrior Games. 

Biden will also support better treatment of athletes by national sports governing bodies and strong action by world governing organisations in the fight against doping and other scourges in sport – the Beau Biden Foundation is helping to raise awareness of the epidemic of sexual abuse of young people in sport at all levels.

UNCONQUORED  

In these turbulent times, Biden’s victory on a unity ticket provides hope. Biden gave rise and voice to much of that hope himself, through his own self belief and belief in sport to help overcome personal challenges.

Like the Invictus Games motto itself, Biden remains unconquered; the captain of his soul and master of his fate. 

And like Coe, Biden now knows what it feels like to win Olympic gold. In these desperate COVID times, Biden’s special edition gold medal, coloured blue, was delivered in the post, along with the presidency.

Michael Pirrie is an international communications, campaign and media relations specialist who led London’s global media campaign against New York, Paris, Moscow and Madrid to host the Olympic Games in 2012. Michael has worked on several major international events, including the 2016 Invictus Games in Florida, hosted by former First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and was Executive Adviser to London Olympic Committee Chairman, Seb Coe.

Picture: Stratos Brilakis/Shutterstock

Invictus Games Joe Biden London 2012