Why It Pays To Teach About The Olympics

Even if you’re not a sports enthusiast, the Olympics are an incredibly powerful tool for engaging your students in real world learning opportunities.

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It’s A Treasure Trove Of History

In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 X 100 meters. This would be an historically impressive feat on its own, but even more so as Adolf Hitler was in power and white supremacy was dominating the NAZI party controlled propaganda machine. Who can forget the People’s Radios? If you were an Aryan German citizen, you received a free radio so that you could listen to the government’s message at all hours of the day. Jesse Owens success directly attacked and dismantled this white supremacist messaging, and this played out on People’s Radios across the nation.  Not only did Jesse Owens defeat German athletes in one sport, he defeated them in four. No, unfortunately, this didn’t change the horrific history that unfolded, but Jesse Owens did show not only Germany, but also the world, that he was a living example that their racist ideologies were wrong. Other events that you can look at in class, are the 1968 Black Power Salute, the Boycott by African Nations in 1976, women being allowed to participate for the first time in 1900 and the kidnapping of Israeli athletes in 1972. Exploring the significance of the historical and political issues that led to these events at the Olympics are excellent tools for exploring cause and consequence as well as historical significance.  One idea is to ask students to identify the five most historically significant events that have taken place at the Olympics, identify their root causes and explore the impact that these events still have today.

Growth Mindset

When people embrace growth mindset, they believe that their abilities can be improved through dedication and hard work. They view failures as opportunities for improvement, and learn from their mistakes to improve themselves. Olympic athletes are living embodiments of growth mindset.

No Olympic athlete makes it to the Olympics without failing and literally falling a number of times along their journey. Not only that, but even competing in the Olympics requires recognition that you are probably not going to win. Very few Olympic athletes actually achieve gold medals, but they compete anyway. Olympic Athletes put their heart and soul into their performance and achieve physical feats that many of us wouldn’t believe possible. These physical feats are not just examples of impressive athleticism, they require prodigious mental strength. Tapping into the brain-training secrets of Olympic Athletes in our classroom not only provides students with powerful examples of achievement via growth mindset, but also helps them map out their own tools for personal achievement. Check out this article by Carolyn Gregoire The Brain-Secrets of Olympic Athletes for a few ideas that you can incorporate in your classroom today.

Female Athletes Are Celebrated

In Western society, male athletes dominate the sports on our televisions and social media feeds. Over the years, I have learned that the female athletes I teach are acutely aware of this. In Grade 10 History, when I ask students to select their Heritage Fair topic, I always have a couple female athletes who choose to look at women in sports. One of the underlying takeaways from those presentations is that these athletes want to see themselves represented in sport. The Olympics offers women that. All of a sudden, news broadcasters, mainstream television and social media feeds are praising female athletes. As a Canadian sports enthusiast, I was glued to the Canadian Women’s first hockey game. However, I wasn’t the only one. The game was trending on Twitter and filling up my Instagram feed. As teachers, we should take this moment to celebrate female athleticism in our class. It can also be used as a great tool for discussion: Why do we care about female athletes in the Olympics but ignore them the rest of the time? Can this be changed? How? You get the idea – it is an opportunity to both celebrate female athleticism and encourage your students to think about how they can challenge the societal norms that normally exclude them. Check out: 7 Historic Feminist Olympic Movements, Because Female Athletes Have Always Slayed and/or Key Dates In The History Of Women In The Olympics.           

The Olympics Are Politically Relevant

The Olympics are political. The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have barely begun and Russia has been excluded, North Korea and South Korea walked in together for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and athletes like Gus Kenworthy are using their fame to advocate for the LGBTQ community. Even without this, propaganda and the Olympics have always gone hand in hand. This lens can be explored in the classroom to help students understand current societal and political issues. Check out:  The Olympics Have Always Been Political.

The Olympics Need To Change

The Olympics are also expensive and environmentally damaging. It is estimated that South Korea is spending 13 billion to host the Winter Olympics. Although South Korea engaged in many environmentally sustainable initiatives this year, most experts believe that the environmental cost of the Olympics is devastating. The question becomes: Are the Olympics sustainable? Students could research and create a costs and gains analysis of continuing the Olympics. They could then work in teams to design an alternative, less expensive and more sustainable format for the Olympics. They would not only be looking at current economic, social and environmental issues but be working together collaboratively in teams to create a real world solution.

They are relevant to your students

Even if you’re not watching the Olympics, many of your students are. They are talking about it with their friends and family. If you give them a chance to bring what they are doing outside of your classroom into the learning environment, I guarantee that you will see an increased level of engagement. Engaged students are more likely to learn, interact and critically think about what you are presenting them.  Its time to start talking about the Olympics in your classroom.