With the attention devoted to high school draft picks, Parade All-America teams and Dick Vitale's eighth-grade hoops phenoms, you'd think that this is an athletic-golden age for the nation's youth. Nothing could be further from the truth. By devoting too many resources to organized competition and too few to broad, noncompetitive fitness programs, the U.S. is producing a generation of kids beset with such health problems as non-insulin-dependent diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and osteoporosis, as well as common obesity, which has doubled among youth in the past decade. Physical education used to be an important component of school life, but that has changed. The percentage of high school students enrolled in daily gym classes declined from 42% to 29% during the '90s, and 14% of people age 12 to 21 get no exercise at all.
However, a wake-up call has been sounded in Washington, D.C., partly because this is an Olympic year and, according to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, partly because of an April 24 SI feature on the declining state of physical education. While touring the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., on June 23, President Clinton announced the creation of a privately funded foundation that will work with the President's Council to improve phys ed in America's schools. The foundation's primary objective will be to raise private-sector funds to help finance gym programs. Given the losing battle the President's Council has been fighting in recent years to preserve such programs against zealously frugal school boards, that's not an insignificant mission.
Still, money can only begin to restore phys ed programs at schools across the country. To complete the task, boards of education—and local voters—have to overcome their shortsighted approach to cutting school budgets. "What still has to happen is for states and schools to recognize that phys ed should be part of any core curriculum," says former NBA coach Don Casey, the vice chairman of the President's Council. "If we can combine that mentality with funds from the private sector, then we can start to turn around a problem that is approaching epidemic proportions."