Hard Lessons At the Olympics, Like The Metric System

Turkey's Nevin Yanit (from left) United States' Kellie Wells and Russia's Tatyana Dektyareva compete in a women's 100-meter hurdles semifinal. Exactly how many yards is that?

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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?


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?


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.


RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.