Beginning more than 2,500 years ago, from all quarters of the Greek world men thronged every four years to the sacred grove of Olympia, under the shadow of Mount Cronus, to compete in the most famous athletic contests of history—the Olympian games.
During the contest a sacred truce was observed among all the states of Greece as the best athletes of the Western world competed in boxing and foot races, wrestling and chariot races for the wreath of wild olive which was the prize of victory. When the winners returned to their home cities to lay the Olympian crowns in the chief temples they were greeted as heroes and received rich rewards. For the Greeks prized physical excellence and athletic skills among man's great goals and among the prime foundations of a vigorous state.
Thus the same civilizations which produced some of our highest achievements of philosophy and drama, government and art, also gave us a belief in the importance of physical soundness which has become a part of Western tradition; from the mens sana in corpore sano of the Romans to the British belief that the playing fields of Eton brought victory on the battlefields of Europe. This knowledge, the 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.
The first indication of a decline in the physical strength and ability of young Americans became apparent among United States soldiers in the early stages of the Korean War. The second came when figures were released showing that almost one out of every two young Americans was being rejected by Selective Service as mentally, morally or physically unfit. But the most startling demonstration of the general physical decline of American youth came when Dr. Hans Kraus and Dr. Sonja Weber revealed the results of 15 years of research centering in the Posture Clinic of New York's Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital—results of physical fitness tests given to 4,264 children in this country and 2,870 children in Austria, Italy and Switzerland.
The findings showed that despite our unparalleled standard of living, despite our good food and our many playgrounds, despite our emphasis on school athletics, American youth lagged far behind Europeans in physical fitness. Six tests for muscular strength and flexibility were given; 57.9% of the American children failed one or more of these tests, while only 8.7% of the European youngsters failed.
A CONSISTENT DECLINE
Especially disheartening were the results of the five strength tests: 35.7% of American children failed one or more of these, while only 1.1% of the Europeans failed, and among Austrian and Swiss youth the rate of failure was as low as .5%.
As a result of the alarming Kraus-Weber findings President Eisenhower created a Council on Youth Fitness at the Cabinet level and appointed a Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth, composed of prominent citizens interested in fitness. Over the past five years the physical fitness of American youth has been discussed in forums, by committees and in leading publications. A 10-point program for physical fitness has been publicized and promoted. Our schools have been urged to give increased attention to the physical well-being of their students. Yet there has been no noticeable improvement. Physical fitness tests conducted last year in Britain and Japan showed that the youth of those countries were considerably more fit than our own children. And the annual physical fitness tests for freshmen at Yale University show a consistent decline in the prowess of young Americans; 51% of the class of 1951 passed these tests, 43% of the class of 1956 passed, and only 38%, a little more than a third, of the class of 1960 succeeded in passing the not overly rigorous examination.
Of course, physical tests are not infallible. They can distort the true health picture. There are undoubtedly many American youths and adults whose physical fitness matches and exceeds the best of other lands.
But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies—whose physical fitness is not what it should be—who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation.