Our teacher paced back and forth across the hardwood flood. “The Presidential Physical Fitness Award is the highest gym-class-related national honor you fourth graders can receive.” We listened as he rattled off the events: sit-ups, push-ups, mile run, shuttle run, chin-ups, and a seated stretch that you could tell from his voice that he held in great contempt. The big parachute and the hula hoops would have to stand down—this week our country needed us, apparently.
Fed up with America’s doughy, not-military-industrial-complex-ready youths, the Eisenhower Administration had created The President’s Council on Youth Fitness. The Council’s mere existence did nothing for the war readiness of grade-school students and, so, a President’s Fitness Challenge was implemented. Through the years and the various communist scares about super soldiers capable of mole-like tunneling, radiation immunities, and the ability to do an astronomical number of sit-ups in one minute, the test evolved into an annual six-event display of general juvenile ineptitude. “If you achieve above the eighty-fifth percentile in all six events,” our teacher said, “you get a patch and the knowledge that your country is proud of you. If you fail, well, then you’re the very reason this country needs another great war.” Misty-eyed, his words choked out as he saluted the piece of red-white-and-blue bunting hanging from the rafters.
We lined up and took turns sprinting and fetching small blocks from various distances, a useful skill for a fourth grader to master if they planned on working later as a short distance sprinter or block fetcher. Most of us, by design, didn’t meet the running-with-small-blocks metric and were deemed “too candy-assed to fight Saddam.”
This was only the second term of the Clinton Administration—it wouldn’t be until many years later that our nation would grasp that the Iraq Conflict and my personal physical fitness were both lost causes. The few classmates who did achieve patch-status lorded it over the rest of us, attesting they were “lean, mean, world policing machines.” I didn’t much mind their chiding patriotism and war-machine zeal, but overall it hadn’t seemed fair that we had been expected to submit to this physical challenge by a hedonistic, heart-disease-belt born president with an admitted penchant for enchiladas and cheeseburgers. Why should I have to tolerate a whistle-toting adult man prodding me to do seven chin-ups as Bill Clinton, meanwhile, gets to sit, all day, in an air-conditioned room—with no chin-up bar or whistles—just listening to his impeachment hearings?
Fourth graders don’t need to be reminded that their fitness scores “are somehow in the negative percentile” or have to hear “that tantrum doesn’t count as a push-up, Justin.” Instead of pitting children everywhere against each other in this pseudo-battle-royale of patches and low self-esteem, what about if we all competed against the president? If you bested the president’s marks, even in just an event or two, you’d could get an award or certificate that reads something like “1998: More Fit Specimen Than the Leader of the Free World.”
Obviously, some administrations would pose stiffer competition: outperforming Obama or Kennedy would be an actual accomplishment whereas, had the program existed, almost every kid across the county would have been award-worthy under Taft or FDR.
Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope for this vision. Since 1998, the whole program has gone through major re-tooling and the challenge itself has been nixed. It seems, in the age of drones, we just don’t need as many super soldiers and their cosmic hearing to supervise our overseas economic interest or fetch large amounts of blocks.