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? i i

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? Anja Niedringhaus/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Anja Niedringhaus/AP
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?

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?

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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?

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