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Edwin Moses: Helping Children Hurdle Physical Inactivity

03/19/2015 09:12 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

My image of legendary hurdler Edwin Moses is his running so far ahead of the competition in the Olympics that he at times looked like he was in his own race. Before Michael Jordan was like Mike and Usain Bolted in front of all other sprinters, Edwin showed what it meant to dominate a sport. Edwin basically ruled the 400 meter hurdles from the mid-1970s through much of the 1980s. This included gold medals at the 1976 Montreal and 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and the 1983 Helsinki and 1987 Rome World Championships. In 1984, he was ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year (along with gymnast Mary Lou Retton) in 1984. ESPN ranked Edwin number 47 in their SportCentury 50 Greatest North American Athletes, right above tennis legend Pete Sampras.

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True to form, Edwin remains ahead of the curve in his work as chairman of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA, trying to encourage children to engage in more physical activity. Doing so faces its own set of hurdles that Edwin and his colleagues are trying to overcome. Michelle Wong of our Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) recently caught up with Edwin at the 2015 Aspen Institute's Project Play Summit to talk about his efforts:

Michelle: What have you been doing since you retired from track and field?
Edwin: I've been doing quite a few things: I went back to grad school to get my MBA, then I worked for a Wall Street company as a money manager for about five years. I've been highly involved in the non-profit entities, from the United States Olympic Foundation, Olympic committees, and sports organizations such as Laureus. I've been with them for quite a few years now. Also, I've worked with the US Anti-Doping Agency as the Chairman of the Board.

Michelle: Are children and adults getting enough physical activity? If not, why not?
Edwin: I think that the policies have changed. When I was in grade school and high school, we used to have gym class -- very organized physical education classes. Two days a week you had to dress up and you had to complete a whole roster of exercises: basketball, volleyball, baseball, calisthenics, running. We had to do and pass tests for all these different subjects -- everyone did everything. If you couldn't make a basket from the free-throw line, they would move you up to the half-circle, and you would shoot until you made it. It was very well organized, for a full period and a half or perhaps two periods, twice a week. I think that this is gone now.

Michelle: What are some of the benefits of physical activity of which people may not be aware?
Edwin: For kids, they may do better in school; they may develop a more appropriate appetite. Physical activity is an opportunity to teach kids about nutrition and help them develop better nutritional habits. A lot of kids grow up in households where they eat fast food all the time -- these kids may be latchkey kids, and their parents aren't home when they get home. Their parents may be working two or three jobs, and might not come home until 10 or 11 at night. Physical activity can help, as well as things like tutoring, for kids who are in these situations.

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We support a project with kids in the Bronx. Most of the kids' parents are working multiple jobs. No one is home when they get home. No one is there to make sure they do homework. If they're lucky, they have people who have graduated from high school, but probably no one has ever graduated from college to give them some guidance. Physical activity presents an opportunity to be in a positive environment and using the sporting aspect to impart some important details that may be missing in their life. That's where we come in at Laureus -- this is exactly what we support.

Michelle: Have the trends in physical activity changed from before and if so how and why?
Edwin: Just less of it! Education budget has decreased. Governments have been trying to cut costs. In urban areas, there has been a decay of the urban tax base and real estate values. This has had a lot to do with the demise of physical education and education in the school system. They just can't afford it and the tax base is low. Also, there seems to be a lack of political will to make these changes.

Michelle: What changes do you think need to be made? What are the biggest priorities?
Edwin: Personally, I think -- and I know it may not be possible -- that they just need to dramatically change the amount of physical education that kids get. They need to restructure the diets, lunches at school, nutrition at school, and the physical education requirements. It just needs to be radically restructured. We know a lot more now than I did when I was growing up. We didn't have lunch at school when I was growing up until I got to high school. We walked to school. However, today, kids take public transportation, school buses, or the parents take them. The whole dynamic of living in the United States has changed.

Michelle: What strides have been made over the past several years?
Edwin: There's been a lot of thinking about it. A lot of research has been done, but the political will and use of political capital to make significant change has not been as good as it could be. There is a lot more research that needs to be done out there.

Michelle: What role can other top athletes play to encourage physical activity?
Edwin: A lot of top athletes simply don't have the time. Those of us at Laureus do have the time because we're all retired. Athletes can help to build awareness. Not just representing a retail manufacturer or fast food organization that pays them a lot of money to help them sell their products.

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