Random item from my box of running memorabilia.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The "Soft American" Problem

     This fall, I plan to run in the JFK 50-Mile again--I think for the 15th time, although I've lost count.  (The photo at the top of this page is from last year's JFK, and I apologize for keeping it there so long--I'm a real dunce with photography and will replace it and add new images in the next couple of weeks, I hope!)  At JFK, I'll be going into the age 70-79 division this year, and hope to show that some of us old guys can run too!
     I noticed, on the JFK-50 website, that this will be the 49th annual running of that race, and it reminded me of the reason the race has that name.  Fifty years ago last December, president-elect John F. Kennedy wrote an article for Sports Illustrated, "The Soft American," in which he began by observing that the ancient Greeks considered physical excellence to be "among man's greatest goals and among the prime foundations of a vigorous state."  He wote:

               This knowledge . . . that the physical well-being of the citizen is an
               important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of
               the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself.  But it is a knowledge
               which today, in America, we are in danger of forgetting.

Kennedy then reviewed a fairly shocking litany facts that had been the basis of his concern, and when I read it, just recently, I was struck by how prescient he had been about the "danger of forgetting."  Among those now forgotten facts:

               -  Almost half of all young Americans examined by the Selective Service
                  in the late 1950s were rejected by the military as mentally, morally, or
                  physically unfit.

               -  In six tests of muscular strength and flexibility given to 4,264 American
                  children and 2,870 children in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland over
                  fifteen years of research, 57% of the American children failed one or
                  more of the tests while only 9 percent of the European children failed.

               -  In physical fitness tests given to freshmen at Yale University, there
                  had been a steady decline in the number who passed--from 51% in
                 1951  to 43% in 1956 to just 38% in 1960.

In calling for greater attention to the fitness of the country's kids, Kennedy also emphasized that "we do not, like the ancient Spartans, wish to train the bodies of our youth to make them more effective warriors."  Rather, he was suggesting something both more radical and, ultimately, far more important:

               Physical fitness is as vital to the activities of peace as to those of
               war.... It is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.  The
               relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of
               the mind is subtle and complex.  Much of it is not yet understood.
               But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill
               can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy
               and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound
               bodies. . . .  If we fail to encourage physical development and prowess,
               we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work, and for the use
               of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.

     After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, soon after he took office, Kennedy might well have wondered if the CIA and military had done their planning in a stupor.  (Half a century later, as we drift into the 10th or 11th year of Orwellian war in Afghanistan, have we learned anything at all?)  And then, with the escalating development of hydrogen bombs hundreds of times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, something far more ominous loomed--the nuclear arms race punctuated by the Cuban missile crisis, which came terrifyingly close to raining Armageddon on our country.
     Kennedy's "New Frontier" was aimed at breaking America out of its mid-century complacency.  As a visionary leader, he would be remembered most for his call to launch the Apollo moon-flight program, which would amazingly land a man on the moon within a decade.  But in retrospect, it was the call he made for a tougher, more physically and mentally fit citizenry that may ultimately have been the more important call. 
     A couple of years after writing his "Soft American" article, president Kennedy followed up with another initiative that captured the imaginations of thousands of Americans and resulted in the launch of the great 50-mile trail race that now bears his name. 

Next post:  JFK and the rise of ultrarunning in 20th-century America