When the 2012 Olympic games begin on Friday, July 27, First Lady Michelle Obama will be in London to watch all of the action unfold. She won't be solely a spectator, though. In addition to meeting the queen and cheering on Team USA, Mrs. Obama will be working to achieve a goal of Olympic magnitude: combating childhood obesity.
Mrs. Obama will be hosting a Let's Move event, organized through her organization of the same name, to be held on July 28. Since she founded the program in February 2010, Mrs. Obama has focused on getting better food into school cafeterias, improving physical education programs in schools, and getting kids excited about exercise. July 28 will be Let's Move Olympic Fun Day, a chance "to turn that Olympic inspiration into action," Mrs. Obama told reporters. The Olympic-inspired games and activities should be a good chance to get kids moving for a day, but will the movement be able to last after the closing ceremonies?
Combining the Olympics with the quest to get kids moving could either be a tremendous success or a tremendous flop. On one hand, there's perhaps nothing more inspiring than watching an athlete set a new record, and nothing more motivational than the stories behind the Olympic gold. Especially if Team USA does well, kids all across the country will be inspired to be like their favorite athletes. As Mrs. Obama put it, “Being an Olympian isn't just about winning the gold or setting a new record; it's really about pushing yourself. It's about believing in yourself and refusing to give up.” Finally, there's the community aspect of the Olympics; the family that sits together to watch the competitions might be the family that, together, goes out for a game of pickup basketball.
On the other hand, watching Olympians compete could be discouraging for kids who realistically will never be able to do the things that these professional athletes can, particularly those who have never gotten much exercise and for whom starting to get moving will be a struggle. Watching the best athletes in the world compete can set up essentially unattainable expectations that, when coupled with a competitive mentality that focuses on being the best, sends kids the message that if they can’t be the best in the world they shouldn’t even bother trying.
In short, the Olympics have a great potential to motivate kids to be active, but won’t be a panacea to America’s obesity woes. The vast majority of kids will never grow up to be Olympic athletes, so gold medals shouldn’t be used as inspiration. Rather, Olympians should be held up as examples of how much people can love their sports, and how important it is to work hard. And maybe, combined with the other changes Let’s Move is trying to make, those examples might help America’s kids get moving.