Aiming for different medals


The fellow wants to know if I watched the Olympics. Not much, I answered, four, maybe five minutes.

Huh? What’s the matter with you?

Didn’t know anything was wrong with me, though I could stand to lose a few pounds. But if preferring baseball to water polo, beach volleyball, archery and even swimming suggests something wrong with me, then I’m on my last legs. But wasn’t I proud of our athletes, our country?

Yes to both, of course. And, speaking of swimming, especially proud for Michael Phelps, evidently born with gills instead of lungs and fins rather than feet. The winningest Olympian in history, right? And proud of our women athletes, too, for they won a majority of the medals captured by the USA. And happy the good ole USA finished first in total medals, with 104, well above second-place China, with 88.

But how could I know that much and not have watched the Olympics, he asked, truly curious. I mentioned that newspapers were still being published, and that I caught a snippet here and there on radio. But mostly I kept count of the medals because my computer home page bannered the running battle between the U.S. and China, a see-saw that ended happily for our side. So every time I tried to navigate the Internet for whatever reason I got an up-to-the-second update on the medal count, who won and for what.

But — why wasn’t I overjoyed, turning handstands, setting off fireworks and uncorking champagne? Didn’t I care? The quick answer, the one I gave him, was that I reserve handstands, fireworks and champagne for the World Series. In terms of love of country, well, baseball is, after all, the National Pastime. That seemed to satisfy him, or at least it served to change the subject. There’s something else, though, something I didn’t go into with him.

Here it is: as much as I always hope the best for our Olympic athletes, that they’ll dominate the international competition in medals won and class in winning displayed, I’ve never measured my country’s success or honor in how far one of its citizens can throw a discus or how fast they can cover 200 meters (on the track or in the water), whether he can put an opponent against the ropes or on the canvas, or whether she is the planet’s best equestrienne. I would use another set of indices, and, not to be a spoilsport, we don’t perform on the same level as many, many other countries.

Take the not small matter of infant mortality. According to our own Central Intelligence Agency, which monitors a lot more than terrorists, the U.S. ranks 48th among 174 nations with six deaths per 1,000 births. That puts us behind the likes of Cuba, Slovenia, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Isle of Man, and just ahead of Croatia.

Maternal mortality? We’re 47th, tied with Iran. Fewer women die in or immediately following childbirth in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Qatar and Serbia.

A child born in the U.S. today can expect to live 78 years and six months. Not bad, but not as long as in 49 other nations, including essentially all of Europe, east and west, including Scandinavia; but also trailing Japan, South Korea and much of the Caribbean. We do substantially better in terms of underweight children; 1.3 percent of our offspring aged 5 or younger are, or are in danger of, malnutrition. Only two other nations, Chile and Germany, do a better job, so we win the Bronze in that category. But wait: we’re sixth of 70 nations in terms of adult obesity; with 34 percent of grownups overweight, we trail only American Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Kiribati and Saudi Arabia.

If we’re 50th in life expectancy it isn’t because we aren’t spending money to prolong life: while some estimates have us taking the gold for health care spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, the CIA says we’re entitled only to silver; our 16.2 percent, just behind Malta, is more than 187 other countries.

We aren’t in the running, alas, for education spending as a percentage of GDP. At 5.5 percent — 44th of 163 nations measured — we trail Cuba, Botswana, Tanzania, Fiji, Mongolia and Guyana, among others. We do a little better in terms of energy efficiency — the percentage of all fuels wasted versus put to productive use. Here we’re ninth. But, says the CIA, we could learn from Europe, Japan and even smog-smothered China.

We win the gold in military expenditures, but we do that every year, not just every fourth year. And so many countries are happy to let us win it.

Would that the game of nations be played only in gymnasiums and arenas. Would that we as a nation marshal the same resolve to dominate the playing field of human development that a comparative handful of our citizens demonstrate in the pool and on the track. Why don’t we aim for those medals?

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.