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Hard Lessons At the Olympics, Like The Metric System

Aug 12, 2012
Originally published on August 12, 2012 4:59 pm

Olympic winners like gold medalist Claressa Shields have said the games were a learning experience, but what were they learning? Hard work? Sure. Sportsmanship? Maybe. The metric system? Certainly not.

U.S. judo competitor Kyle Vashkulat competes at 100 kg, which he knows means he weighs 220 lbs. But does he know height?

"We were in a sauna, and the guy's telling us the height of the boxers, and he's like, 'Yeah, this guy's like, 1.7 meters' — and we're like, 'How tall is that?'" Vashkulat says, laughing.

Nick Delpopolo, a judoka who wrestles at 73 kg — which, of course, is 161 lbs — also has distance deficiencies. Like if someone says something is 10 km away.

"Uhhh, that's about a little over 3 miles, I know that," Delpopolo says.

Off by about 100 percent. Now it is true that Delpopolo was bounced from these games for ingestion of marijuana, but that surely didn't affect his math skills.

If you want the testimony of a straight shooter — literally — take Jason Parker, a sergeant in the U.S. Army. As a sport shooter on the U.S. Olympic team, Parker measures distances in meters. But is he good with kilograms?

"No, not really," he says.

So the distance athletes don't know metric weights. The weight athletes don't know metric distance. And degrees in Celsius seems to be the universal baffler. But an argument can be made that these young athletes, so consumed by one task, don't have the time or eclecticism to know all.

Perhaps U.S. gold medalist Dan O'Brien, decathlon veteran, is metrically proficient. Does he know how much, say, 78 kg is?

"No not at all," he says. "I just kind of roughly think two-thirds of that added on, you don't double it but, no.

"I'm in the weight room at the gym, I pick up the 36 kilos and start doing some benches and stuff, and — no. It's frustrating."

There is perhaps one reason this matters. Track and field is relatively unpopular in the U.S., maybe because its feats are measured in a way that is meaningless to most Americans.

Wouldn't it be more impressive to say that the gold medal hammer throw went 87 yards? Then we could picture Eli Manning standing on the 13-yard line and tossing a 16-pound steel ball clear to the end zone. And while Monday Night Hammer Throw won't soon be coming to ESPN, it could help the sport heat up a bit, if not reach a full boil, which is what — 600 degrees Celsius?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

As the Olympics have shown, participation in sports at such a high level can teach discipline, perseverance and teamwork. But can the Olympics teach U.S. athletes to think in meters and kilos instead of feet and pounds? NPR's Mike Pesca surveyed some Olympians to find out.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler Ben Provisor and hurdler T'Erea Brown perform different disciplines. But it seems like they have the same major. I'm going to take this as a learning experience for the next four years, said Provisor. It was still a great learning experience, said Brown. But what were they learning? Hard work? Sure. Sportsmanship? Maybe. The metric system? Certainly not.

U.S. judo competitor Kyle Vashkulat competes at 100 kilos, which he knows means he weighs 220 pounds. But height?

KYLE VASHKULAT: I know we were in a sauna, and the guy was telling us, like, the height of the boxers. And he was like, yeah, this guy is like 1.7 meters. And we were like, how tall is that?

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: Nick Delpopolo, a judoka who wrestles at 73 kilos, which of course means 161 pounds, also has distance deficiencies. Yeah, like, if someone says something's 10 kilometers away that means it's how far?

NICK DELPOPOLO: That's about a little over three miles. I know that.

PESCA: Off by about 100%. Now, it is true that Delpopolo was bounced from these games for ingestion of marijuana, but that surely didn't affect his math skills. But if you want the testimony of a straight shooter, literally take Jason Parker, Sergeant U.S. Army, shooter, U.S. Olympic team, dependent, U.S. system of weights and measures. Because you shoot at distances measured in the metrics, are you good with the rest of the metric system? Like, do you know kilograms?

SERGEANT JASON PARKER: No, not really.

PESCA: Do you know, like, there's a 50K marathon. Do you know how long that is?

PARKER: No, I don't.

PESCA: So the distance athletes don't know metric weights, the weight athletes don't know metric meters and degrees in Celsius seems to be the universal baffler. Perhaps U.S. gold medalist Dan O'Brien, veteran of the decathlon, is metrically proficient. I was asking him about the scoring system in the decathlon, and guess what came up?

Speaking of metrics, are you good with the weights? Like, if I said 78 kilos, would you know how much that is?

DAN O'BRIEN: No, not at all. I just kind of roughly think, you know, two-thirds of that added on. You don't double it, but, no, I'm in the weight room at the gym, you know? I pick up the 36 kilos and start doing some benches and stuff and I - no. It's frustrating.

PESCA: There is perhaps one reason this matters. Track and field is relative unpopular in the U.S., maybe because its feats are measured in a way that's meaningless to most Americans. Wouldn't it be more impressive to say that the gold medal hammer throw went 87 yards? Then we could picture Eli Manning standing on the 13-yard line and tossing a 16-pound steel ball clear to the end zone. And while Monday night hammer throw won't soon be coming to ESPN, it could help the sport heat up a bit , if not reach a full boil, which is what, like, 600 degrees Celsius? Mike Pesca, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.