Today, November 22, is a date that, while perhaps not living in infamy, is nonetheless seared into the minds of Baby Boomers around the country. Even those of us whose memories of past events have begun to cloud a bit with the passage of time can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing that fateful day 50 years ago.
As the anniversary of the assassination of JFK hits the half century mark, news outlets everywhere are filled with retrospectives of every sort, and the sports media is no exception. Sports Illustrated ran a story on the NFL’s decision to play its games as scheduled, and almost every other sport has some sort of tie-in to the event.
I’m speaking of the JFK 50 Mile Memorial Run, an ultramarathon in Washington County, Maryland, that’s been held the Saturday before Thanksgiving every year since.
In fact, the first JFK 50 was run in March of 1963, one of many such runs across the country that sprang up in response to Kennedy’s challenging his military officers to meet the requirements that Teddy Roosevelt had set for his own military officers at the dawn of the 20th Century. That Roosevelt requirement was for all military officers to be able to cover 50 miles on foot in 20 hours to maintain their commissions. While most of the other 50 milers were never held after Kennedy’s death, the Maryland race, which is run on roads, the Appalachian Trail and the C & O Canal towpath, has continued uninterrupted, and so grown in popularity in recent years that gaining entry to the limited field is almost as challenging as completing the race itself.
But during his brief tenure Kennedy had a greater influence on the nation’s health than just getting some officers andultramarathoners out on the trails. He emphasized the President’s Council on Physical Fitness as a means to encourage all Americans to become more active, and many of us remember (perhaps with dread) the tests that became a part of the physical education classes of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I wonder what Kennedy would have thought of the current decline in the physical fitness of his country’s young people, a fact that was noted in a study released just last week showing that today’s youngsters are less fit than their predecessors.
Ironically, and presciently, then President-Elect Kennedy wrote an article for Sports Illustrated in December of 1960 entitled “The Soft American,” expressing his concern over the declining physical fitness of Americans, especially American youth. In words that are even more relevant today, he felt that modern day conveniences, such as cars and televisions, allowed for less physical activity in everyday life.
According to Kennedy, “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.”
To achieve that goal, he espoused that physical education and sports participation become a basic, continuing policy of the U.S.
Half a century after his death, many of JFK’s philosophies continue as mainstays of life in America. It would be fitting if his emphasis on developing sounds bodies as well as sound minds could be one of them once again.