NRPA's Olympic History: Go Back in Time for a Look at the Association's Past, Rooted in the Rings of the Olympics

By Hartsoe, Charles E. | Parks & Recreation, August 2004 | Go to article overview

NRPA's Olympic History: Go Back in Time for a Look at the Association's Past, Rooted in the Rings of the Olympics


Hartsoe, Charles E., Parks & Recreation


As we approach the XXVIII Olympic Games, most NRPA members conjure up memories of torches, dramatic wins, symbolic rings and gold medals. What most members don't know, is that NRPA has a long and rich history of sport that has fostered cooperation among participants in promoting and sharing its values, even in the Olympic arena.

NRPA's interest in sports and athletics dates back to the early 1900's. Dr. Luther H. Gulick, and a small group of activists organized the Playground Association of America (PAA) in 1906 to promote play opportunities for youth in America's growing urban areas, The concept behind this new organization was to provide national coordination and guidance in promoting the growing public recreation movement, which at that time was found in approximately 40 cities. This organization was later to become the National Recreation Association (NRA), which--in 1965--would become the present-day NRPA.

At that time when PAA was in its fledgling stages, Gulick was head of the New York City Physical Education Department and also headed the Public School Athletic League of New York. Gulick's earlier career had been with the YMCA, including teaching at the International YMCA College, now known as Springfield College in Massachusetts (This is the same YMCA where the sport of basketball was first invented). Gulick also conceived the Equilateral Triangle theory adopted by the YMCA to show the importance of "body, mind and spirit."

Another important sports activist involved in the development of the PAA was Sawyer Gustavus 32 Kirby. Kirby was also involved with the New York City Public Schools Athletic League with Gulick. Kirby was elected Treasurer of the Playground Association of America in 1908 and served in that capacity until 1946 when he was named treasurer emeritus. Kirby had also served as a member of every U.S. Olympic Committee since 1895 and was instrumental in beginning to stimulate the association's interest in international sports.

As early as 1913, the association launched a major fitness campaign to improve the physical condition of boys and girls by establishing an athletic achievement badge test, which was designed for the Playground and Recreation Association of America (PRAA). In 1.919, PRAA enhanced its role in sports and fitness by establishing the National Physical Education Service.

This effort was in response to a finding that one-third of the men examined by the Army during World War I were deemed physically unfit. One of the principal goals of the National Physical Education Service was to lobby for state laws to establish required physical education as a part of the public school curriculum. After nearly two decades of intensive legislative effort, 33 states had established organized physical education programs in public schools. After tackling domestic issues, Kirby then turned his attention to expanding the association's interest in sports and athletics to the international level.

The 1932 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, Calif., was the first time the Olympic Games had been held in the United States. This event provided NRA and Kirby with the opportunity to organize and host the First International Recreation Congress. The Congress was held July 23-29, 1932, in conjunction with the Olympics.

Thomas E. Hirers, a NRA staff member who was later to gain a distinguished reputation in international recreation, handled much of the organizational work related to the event. Among the impressive list of speakers for the Congress were:

* Count de Raillet Latour, president of the International Olympic Committee, Belgium

* Sir Harold Bowden, chairman and managing director of the Raleigh Cycle Co. …

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