‘Sports has changed attitudes’: Obama welcomes Chicago Cubs to White House – David Smith in Washington Monday 16 January 2017 18.11 EST

The first was in Iowa in January 2008, after a caucus triumph that would lead him to become America’s first black president.

The second was on Monday when, at his last official White House function, he welcomed the Chicago Cubs baseball team, winners of the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

The comparison was less trivial than first appeared. Obama noted that he has hosted more than 50 winning teams from baseball, basketball, American football and soccer during his eight years in office.

He has always appeared to relish the break from the heavy burdens of managing the economy and foreign policy. They have typically been jovial occasions, exercises in charm and soft power, and a tacit acknowledgement that more people watch the Super Bowl than any presidential debate.

At a time when democratic norms are under extraordinary stress, sport remains intact in the social fabric.

Obama spoke in the East Room, which was packed with hundreds of people, many wearing Cubs baseball caps, shirts and jackets.

“It is worth remembering,” he said, “because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports when there’s other stuff going on?’ that throughout our history sports has had this power to bring us together even when the country’s divided.

“Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were. It is a game and a celebration but there is a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”

Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947 by becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

With the Cubs players and staff behind him, the president continued: “I was in my home town of Chicago on Tuesday for my farewell address and I said, ‘Sometimes it’s not enough just to change laws, you’ve gotta change hearts,’ and sports has a way sometimes of changing hearts in a way that politics or business doesn’t.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of us being able to escape and relax from the difficulties of our days, but sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.

“And when you see this group of folks of different shades and different backgrounds coming from different communities and neighbourhoods all across the country and then playing as one team and playing the right way and celebrating each other and being joyous in that, that tells us a little something about what America is and what America can be.”

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