Following this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Texas will be the annual Running USA conference set for January 15-17 at the Hyatt Regency Houston. This year’s conference theme is Passing the Torch: Running Toward the Future. The special guest speaker at Monday’s Ashworth Youth Awards Luncheon will be Shellie Pfohl – Executive Director of President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
As Running USA is currently fashioning its own Youth Initiative, it might be instructive to look back at the history of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition as it relates to Running USA’s Running Toward the Future efforts.
After a report raised concerns about the physical fitness of America’s children relative to their European counterparts in the early 1950s, it was President Dwight Eisenhower (not JFK as many believe) who created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, and confirmed it via cabinet-level status. The Executive Order specified “one” objective as the first Council identified itself as a “catalytic agent” concentrating on creating public awareness. And guess who was the first chairman of the Council? None other than Vice President Richard M. Nixon! Certainly not the man anyone would think of first when fitness comes to mind.
Notwithstanding, a plan of action was developed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1957, and the first nationwide pilot study of 8,500 boys and girls ages 5 thru 12 resulted in the first national testing program which many of us who are old enough remember quite well.
When President Kennedy took office in January 1961, he changed the name to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to address all age groups, not just youth. With the aid of the Advertising Council, a nationwide public service advertising campaign was launched. State demonstration centers were designed in 1961 to showcase model elementary and secondary schools. In that same year, regional clinics and educational films were initiated.
Following Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, President Lyndon Johnson continued much of Kennedy’s agenda, including his focus on fitness. LBJ changed the name again to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to encourage lasting fitness gains through sports and games not just exercise. The second national fitness survey of 10 to 17 year-olds took place in 1965. In 1966, the President established the Presidential Physical Fitness Award for exceptional achievement by boys and girls ages 10 to 17 based on the survey.
During the Nixon Administration, 1969-1974, the Council expanded the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards to include recreation departments and groups such as Boys and Girls clubs. Special Advisors were developed in 1970 to stimulate the development of physical fitness programs for employees, enhanced public relation activities and instigated the possibility of private support for Council projects. Three conferences were held on fitness in business and industry in 1972, 1973, and 1974. The Presidential Sports Award was established in 1972 to motivate Americans to participate regularly in fitness/ sports activity.
Moving into the Gerald Ford years, 1974-1977, which coincided with the original Running Boom, the Executive Order was amended with two additional objectives in 1976 to charge the Council with informing the general public of the importance of exercise and assisting business and industry in establishing sound physical fitness programs. In 1975, the third national youth fitness survey took place and results did not show as much improvement as those of 1965. In 1976, the Presidential Sports Award was available in 43 categories.
And on it went through the ensuing presidencies of Carter, Reagan, Bush “41″, Clinton, and George “43” Bush. In 2006 President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports launched its 50th Anniversary year by celebrating the accomplishments of its partners and friends and establishing a partnership initiative, 50th Anniversary Partners to Get America Moving! Today, First Lady Michelle Obama spearheads her own Let’s Move initiative, which is all in line with what noted Italian running coach Renato Canova wrote on a LetsRun.com thread on January 4, Renato: can caucasians compete? “the real problem is the social difference between Western Countries and that part of Africa still interested in running…The dominance of African is due to their talent, but also to the fact white athletes disappeared. And the solution is not to look at Africa too much, but to look at our young generation, creating again interest in running and organising a different type of life.”
Yet despite the sheer longevity of the President’s Council, and different levels of involvement and focus provided by now 11 presidents, rather than seeing a vastly improved citizenry in terms of health and fitness, in fact, we see just the opposite. Childhood obesity continues to grow at frightening levels, and the general health of the population is in constant decline.
And so the question becomes, though the need may be greater than ever, how effective would a Running USA Youth Initiative be in light of the last 50+ years of the President’s Council own efforts when considering the size and funding available to Running USA to achieve such a vast, unmeasurable goal?
“No way in this culture will running appeal to the youth,” said one fitness crusader I spoke with recently who asked to remain anonymous. “Despite anything government councils may try to do, it has to start at home. And if parents don’t encourage healthy eating and exercise that leaves it up to the school programs which are being cut left and right. Plus, there is all this peer pressure to hang out and be cool.
“In addition, the parents aren’t healthy themselves. You have an I-Pad, I-Phone, Kim-Kardashian-Reality-TV culture mentality to deal with, as well. There are just too many things working against you.
“This isn’t the 1960s. There is no traditional mom at home to prepare a healthy breakfast. Kids get off at 3 p.m. when mom is still at work. Fast forward to 2012. Neither parent is at home. Both are too busy to prepare lunch, so they give the kids a few dollars. And forget breakfast. Kids are going to Starbucks or 7-11 for frappuccinos or Red Bulls. They’re on caffeine already because it’s trendy. And if they are allowed off campus for lunch, they head to Taco Bell. So even if there were exercise programs they wanted to participate in –which don’t exist – they don’t have the right fuel in the first place. Everything they eat breaks down to plain, white sugar.
“I don’t see how you are going to win here. Leave it up to the schools, but they don’t have any Phys Ed curriculum. So it all stems from our financial situation. The whole society is now too stressed, too tired, too broke. Even people who enter marathon training programs aren’t schooled in how to make proper lifestyle changes.
“These marathons are social events for many people, not sporting events. It’s a bucket list thing to do. There’s no individualized training. The only thing addressed is how to get through 26.2 miles on fuel for that day, not day-to-day nutrition through the whole process. That’s the big flaw in all these training programs. They ought to hire dieticians to coordinate with them. It’s the 22 weeks leading up that needs to be drilled into them every day, not how many Gu packs they wear on their belt on race day.
“If you start with protein and berries at breakfast, your sugar levels don’t spike up and you tend not to crave anything when you get to work. Eat nuts and fruit before lunch, then protein, carbs and fat for lunch, heavy on the protein to elevate your metabolism, then another small snack in the afternoon so you don’t go running off to the vending machine at 3 p.m. for chips or a Snickers bar. The more protein with carbs you have throughout the day, the less likely you are to crash and start looking for Dorritos.
“Before the workout have a carb drink, because without it there’s no energy going into the workout. Before you know it, it is 7:30 and you haven’t had any nutrition since 3:00, and when you get home you start wolfing down whatever’s there, cause you’re starving. If nothing else have a carb drink before the workout and a replacement drink prepared for right after. That way you’ve replaced carbs, protein, and electrolytes which gives you a two-hour cushion to have a decent meal.
“This is how you should conduct your life even if you are not an athlete. But our culture is the opposite of that. And people aren’t ready to hear that. You can’t lecture parents, they already feel bad enough as it is. So you can’t convince kids without convincing their parents. And they are barely making ends meet.
“Look, Michelle Obama is trying with her own “Let’s Move” initiative, and she gets ridiculed by the GOP. Unless you have billions of dollars to get into every town year-round, no initiative will take root. You can’t do it by staging a five-week program jogging around the playground once a year that ends with the final mile of the local marathon. That’s pretend fitness.”
Since its founding in 1999, Running USA has struggled to maintain focus, relevance and purpose in an industry notoriously built on a multitude of local, bottom-up platforms rather than a single top-down national model. And though the organization was initially begun to improve the status of American distance running internationally, it found that purpose impossible to sustain through ongoing funding, and instead began morphing into a traditional trade organization.
Today, there is a split in the Running USA board of directors as to what the purpose and direction of the organization should be. On one side is the trade association model keying on things like the Youth Initiative. On the other side is a cadre wanting to return to the original purpose of developing top American runners who might, as a secondary consequence, attract fans among America’s youth and inspire them to get fit and run.
Not that it should even be an even-or decision, but the first thing one learns in running is to have realistic expectations. Trying to change the culture at large through a broad-based Youth Initiative via one segment of the sporting landscape seems an unrealistic goal. Trying to develop top-end talent systematically within an industry via a more targeted program – which might then have an causal influence on the larger culture – seems to present a more probable chance of success. Not to mention it has already been done successfully once in Meb Keflizighi and Deena Kastor’s Olympic Marathon medals in Athens 2004.
Just as Republicans and Democrats desire the best for the nation, but see the road to that best as taking different paths, so, too is Running USA fundamentally split. Neither side is wrong in its wishes or intentions. The question is: Can the sport ever coalesce around a top-down initiative, or is it forever locked into an every-event-for-itself model? That is the question which will again be asked in Houston next week. I wonder if there will ever be a resolute answer?