Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Enthusiastic crowds line up to get wristbands for "American Idol" tryouts outside the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City earlier this week.

No question, Americans love a contest.

In years past, they have competed at livestock shows and pie bake-offs at the county fair.

In recent years, the nation has been fixated on television shows such as "American Idol." An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 showed up at EnergySolutions Arena this past week to audition for the program. David Archuleta's success, undoubtedly, has stirred interest among "Idol" faithful in Utah. But the auditions had regional appeal, too, attracting wannabes from throughout the Rocky Mountain area. Some 200-400 singers will be sent on to the next round.

But the throngs of people who waited in line for wristbands, applications and to wait some more — a good portion of another day — for the chance to audition, tell us something about the nature of humans. Their competitive spirit is alive and well.

Why not then apply that competitive drive to larger problems facing the nation? Why not have a national competition for an automobile that does not rely on any form of carbon fuel — gasoline, diesel or electricity most likely generated at a coal-fired power plant?

How about a national contest for school reform? There could be sizable cash rewards for schools that, over a year, vastly improve academic achievement. All the while, video cameras could capture the magic in the classroom, homes and communities and present progress reports each week.

Or how about a contest that pits cities against one another in measurable goals such as improving water and energy conservation at home and in the work place? Or a contest such as the "Biggest Loser" in which entire communities would compete against one other in improving physical fitness and losing weight. The winner could receive millions in federal grants for biking and hiking trails and other public accommodations that encourage healthy lifestyles.

The public interest would be tremendous, and instead of just competing for competition sake, these contests would be focused on addressing real-life problems. There wouldn't be one winner, a la "Idol" or "Biggest Loser." Many people, if not an entire nation, could benefit from the concept.

Now if we can just tap some well-heeled sponsors. Perhaps we should hold a contest among the best and brightest billionaires who have succeeded in the world of business, for the honor of conducting these contests. Their success, after all, is largely due to their innovation and, yes, their competitive spirit.