Preventive Medicine Column

Dr. David L. Katz

I have been asked to do several interviews- both in print and on air- about the Nike “find your greatness” ad we all saw during the Olympics that shows an obese boy running down a dirt road- so I thought I would share my views here as well.

The ad implies that an obese boy is pursuing greatness as he runs down the road, presumably indicating that obesity is not a barrier to greatness.  We can all ‘go for it.’  But while obesity is not a barrier to greatness of many varieties, it certainly is a barrier to great distance running.

I am concerned that the ad suggests that something for which obesity is a genuine barrier- athletic prowess- is what greatness is all about.  This, of course, is nonsense.  I don’t know for sure, but I bet Sir Isaac Newton did a truly lousy butterfly.  I can’t see Mother Teresa in the synchronized swim.  And I bet Mozart wasn’t much of a hurdler.

The message that obesity is no barrier to greatness is both a good and important message.  But did this poor boy running, looking like he was about to pass out or throw up (as, apparently, he actually did during filming)- look like greatness to you?  It looked like torture to me.

Even as we are trying to escape our cultural biases, they are in fact asserting themselves.  Why does greatness need to be about running, or even athleticism?  Why show that obesity is NOT a barrier to greatness, by picking a form of greatness to which obesity is clearly and objectively a barrier?  As my friend and expert colleague Steve Blair points out routinely, fitness and fatness can of course go together.  But severe obesity, as in this case, and distance running clearly do not.

In fact, as a physician, I would advise this young man AGAINST running until after he had lost considerable weight by lower impact means, far less hazardous to his joints, connective tissues, and even cardiovascular system.  The running this boy was doing looked not only horribly unpleasant- but potentially dangerous, and ill-advised.

There are innumerable alternative roads to greatness.  Perhaps this boy is a great writer; a great humanitarian.  Perhaps he is the kindest person you could ever meet.  Perhaps he is an orator, a singer, a musician, a composer; a poet; a painter; a chess master.  There are countless ways this boy might be great- and obesity would not be a barrier to any of them.

The ad could have shown a boy we were inclined to judge based on his appearance sitting down at a piano bench- and stunning us with his virtuosity.  That would have rocked our bias back on its heels, and shown us, without muddling the message, that obesity and greatness can travel the same road.  But of course, it wouldn’t make sense for Nike to air such an ad.

But the ad they did air seems to suggest that an obese boy can get to greatness only by overcoming his obesity.  It fails to consider that he may be great already- in any number of ways that truly matter.

If Nike wants to promote physical activity, per se, that’s fine- but that’s not about greatness.  Then the message is: anyone can be active, and everyone can benefit from it (a message with which I agree wholeheartedly).  Start small, do what you can do, and build from there.  The message is that anyone can get to better health, and everyone deserves to do so.  But health is not ‘greatness.’  And implying that doing anything at even a nominal level is ‘greatness’ demeans what most of us want the term “greatness” to mean.

It might even suggest a double standard.  To be a “great” runner if you are lean, you have to be actually great; to be a great runner if you are obese, you merely need to survive until the cameras stop rolling.  I don’t buy it.

Becoming more active to lose weight and or find health is great- but it’s not greatness.  Greatness isn’t dependent on it. Weight does not measure human worth. Bathroom scales are not designed to weigh merit.  The boy in the Nike ad may well be full to the brim with greatness- but none of it has anything to do with running.

Nike was right to suggest that we can all seek greatness, and that neither weight nor physical disabilities need preclude that. They were right to suggest that the boy in their ad could find greatness- now or in the future.  But if so, it almost certainly lies along a road their ad did not take.

 

-fin

 

Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com