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Take Back the MAC


By Mark J. Sneider

WITH THE arrival of spring comes the predictable surge of activity at the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) as Harvard students frantically prepare their bodies for the transition from libraries and lecture halls to sea shores and swimming polls. Yet with each new face I see at the MAC these days, I grow ever more disdainful of Harvard's egalitarian approach to physical fitness.

Some people just don't belong at the MAC. Plain and simple.

You see, I'm what you might call a "MAC rat," one of those fanatical, all-season, rain or shine, day and night devotees of Harvard's most extensive exercise facility. I resent the amateurs and dilettantes who have invaded the MAC at the expense of its most loyal users.

We are to the MAC what Norm, Cliff and Fraser are to Cheers, the athletic equivalent of the Society of Nerds and Greeks.

MAC rats have watched as the Harvard masses turned what was once a decent, wellkept gym into a noisy, overcrowded circus where one must scramble for weights, fight for dumbbells and stand in long lines for the most popular (and most misused) equipment. That's why so many of us wake up early to beat the crowds.

But beyond the sheer volume of users these days, the MAC suffers other problems as well. For example, equipment frequently breaks or, worse yet, disappears--no doubt the handiwork if ingenious thieves who think they can accomplish more with a single 25-pound dumbbell in their room than with the entire set at the MAC.

OVER THE LAST few months I have identified several types of individuals whose expulsion from the MAC is necessary before we can reinvigorate the ideals of hard work and excellence that inspired its creation. While not scientific, my findings are the product of hours of frustrating encounters with countless nincompoops.

The talker. By far the most common irritant in the MAC, the talker chit-chats with his buddies about last night's party or tomorrow's midterm while others wait for the equipment he pretends to be using. Loud and obnoxious, he disturbs others with his incessant guffawing and meaningless banter. The talker should take his tea party to Boston Harbor.

The reader. Perhaps the most studious user of the MAC, the reader cannot pry herself away from a long enough to complete a workout. She fruitlessly attempts to build her mind while building her muscles. Often seen clutching a book while climbing the Stairmaster, the reader belongs in the library, not the MAC.

The meditator. This one mystifies me. He seems eager to perform an exercise and may even ask you to spot him. But upon grasping the equipment, the meditator drifts into a trance of sorts, sitting motionless and staring into space. The meditator resembles the average student in a statistics lecture. He should seek professional counseling before ever coming near the MAC.

The grunter. The most comic of all MAC miscreants, the grunter cannot help herself. When performing an exercise, she invariably growls, gasps, moans, snorts, screams or even yells to convey to everyone the intensity of her efforts. An interesting note: The grunter's loudness is inversely proportional to the quality of her workout.

The poser. Closely related to his friend, the grunter, the poser spends most of his time in front of the mirror. Whether flexing his muscles, straightening his shirt or fixing his hair, the poser seems more interested in picking up dates than in packing up weights. To regain his focus, the poser should spend an evening with an officer of the Radcliffe Union of Students.

To be sure, this list is not exhaustive. I have encountered many individuals whose behavior places them in more than on category. For example, the mediator-poser zones out while staring at himself in the mirror, as if frozen by the mere sight of himself in shorts. Others, like the guy who tried to do dumbbell biceps curls while holding a three-month-old infant in the other arm, defy any classification whatsoever. They're just weird.

BUT MORE importantly, they're dangerous--not only to themselves, but also to the continued maintenance and proper functioning of the MAC. As I see it, the MAC suffers from two principal problems that stem from its excessive accessibility to the public--overcrowding and misuse. To combat these evils, I propose two reforms: First, a membership fee of say, $25 per term, would force students to think seriously about their pursuit of physical fitness, thereby discouraging dabblers and jokers from wasting time at the MAC.

Moreover, individual investment in the MAC would help alleviate the problems normally associated with public goods, such as Aristotle's famous "tragedy of the commons." Right now, the MAC suffers the same neglect and mistreatment that afflict public housing projects, local parks and other products of modern socialism.

Students with a financial stake in the MAC would no longer tolerate the incompetence of its current management. A $25 investment might concentrate responsibility and ownership enough to deter would-be thieves and abusers.

Revenues generated by the fee could be used to repair damaged machines or purchase new equipment altogether.

Admittedly, the imposition of a membership fee would be wildly unpopular, particularly in the wake of soaring tuition costs and George Bush's tax increases. What's worse, it might not produce the intended effect. Rather than reducing attendance at the MAC, such a fee might actually encourage rich students with no coordination or competence but lots of disposable income to return to the MAC more frequently and get the most for their dollar.

Which is why, in addition to a membership fee, I also propose:

Periodic certification. You need not be a professional bodybuilder nor have an intimate knowledge of muscular kinesiology to qualify for membership at the MAC. But you would have to demonstrate a basic level of commitment to physical fitness and a level of competence that go beyond that of the typical back-to-school, New Year's resolution, Spring Break Crowd.

Certification would insure not only the proper use of and respect for MAC equipment but also the safety of its users-- something the University talks a lot about when it comes to parties and fire extinguishers. A mandatory tutorial on weight training, taught by a friendly MAC rat, would be entirely consistent with the array of workshops, presentations and speeches that the administration forces firstyears to endure each fall.

PROPONENTS of diversity will challenge the principles behind my proposals. Rather than merely promote bodybuilding excellence among a select elite, they would argue, the MAC should strive to include students of all skill levels and backgrounds. To do otherwise would smack a Buchanan-like nativism, even fascism.

MAC rats, some might claim, apply too narrow a standard of "excellence." We simply do not understand the reader nor appreciate the unique "perspective" she brings to the weight room.

Perhaps. But there are plenty of gyms around campus where a reader can more effectively lend her unique perspective--Adams and Dunster come to mind--without causing so much consternation. Because it boasts the broadest selection and highest quality of equipment this side of the river, the MAC should cater only to the serious and successful, not the incompetent and insane.

Besides, the combination of free weights, universal machines and Nautilus equipment already guarantees some degree of pluralism and diversity at the MAC.

PLEASE don't misunderstand us. MAC rats support, indeed encourage, the popular pursuit of physical fitness at all levels of skill and interest, just as celebrated pianists might promote an appreciation of music among the general public. But never having taken piano lessons, I have no more a right to bang the keys in Paine Hall than the talker has to bang the weights in the MAC.

Ever suspicious of regulatory red tape, conservatives might object to user fees and certification requirements as unwarranted intrusions into the pocketbooks and lives of Harvard students, the latest steps down the path of administrative micromanagement that began with randomization in 1990.

The current situation, however, contains market distortions painfully obvious to any defender of free enterprise. Moreover, one must recall Thomas Jefferson's dictum: "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Indeed, MAC rats must vigilantly protect their precious liberties before they are drowned in a cesspool of mediocrity. To do any less would be unhealthy.

Mark J Sneider '93 has seen every Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Twice.

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