Teaching about the Olympics

It’s not mascots, marketing or national pride that have won me over. It’s the potential to use the Games as an allegory to teach children about equality and fairness in competition.

I have to confess I’ve never really had much interest in sporting events. Wimbledon. The World Cup. The Olympics. I rarely give them much more than a passing thought.

As a teacher in Year 5 I remember touching on the origins of the Olympics when teaching Ancient Greece, but as someone who doesn’t really do ‘sport’, I skipped over it to get to the more interesting stuff: how do Greek myths transmit society’s values, what was the importance of the gods, and why were there such bitter rivalries between the Athenians and Spartans?

How past societies worked, their values and their conflicts were always the most interesting part of history to me. Perhaps this is because I’ve always been drawn to personal, social and citizenship education, often considered a rather ‘fluffy’ subject, but is, to me, anything but. It’s what brings the historical past into the political today. An education that creates adults who are competent in English and maths but who lack personal and social skills, have never considered what they value and why, or thought about the challenges the world faces, are not only unlikely to be as successful in their relationships, but less capable of participating and bringing about positive changes in society. The unrelenting pressure on academic standards however, means there is less and less room in the primary curriculum to explore and explicitly teach any of these things.

So how is all of this related to the Olympics? I didn’t think it was until I was looking at the new Go-Givers lessons on the Olympics. As the Olympics is a rare opportunity for teachers to go off-piste, it was gratifying to discover that there are many more personal, social and citizenship learning opportunities through the topic than I realised. The Go-Givers lessons use the Olympics as a great starting point for discussion with children about the Olympic values, their own goals and aspirations, but are also a springboard for some interesting and quite philosophical debates.

It sounds obvious, but the Olympic Games are a competition. And competitions get right to the heart of some of the key themes in personal, social and citizenship education: equality and fairness.
These are concepts that children in particular care deeply about.

Who takes part in the Olympics; who doesn’t; how is a level playing field established; are all winners ‘equal’? These are especially interesting questions in a competition which aims to bring nations together around a set of values – respect, excellence and friendship – and put aside their differences, but in reality has often been used to for economic, political and ideological point scoring.

Did you know for example that Hitler tried to use the 1936 Berlin Olympics games to demonstrate that his blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan race were superior to other races? He expected Lutz Lang, the brilliant German long-jumper would win the long jump final. When he was defeated by the ‘racially inferior’ African American Jesse Owens, Hitler reportedly refused to put the gold medal around his neck.

This Olympic snub can be compared with the selection of Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal athlete, to light the Olympic flame at the 2000 Games in Sydney, in an attempt to make amends for the racial discrimination Aboriginal people have suffered in Australia. Such facts can lead to interesting and challenging discussions with the children about how we judge people and what attributes make someone a ‘winner’.

The Olympics are also a means for primary children to explore the subtle difference between being equal and being the same. For example, the question of whether Paralympic athletes with prosthetic limbs should be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes. The Paralympic Games were started in 1960 following a competition in 1948 organised by Ludwig Guttmann for World War II veterans who had spinal injuries. Children can debate whether not allowing disabled athletes to compete alongside able-bodied athletes is fair and whether physical differences are the only inequalities that merit separate treatment.

Is it fair, for example, that rich economically developed countries with outstanding sports facilities compete against poorer less economically developed countries where athletes have few facilities and are unable to train with specialist sports equipment?

And finally, no teacher interested in personal, social and citizenship education could lead a topic on the Olympics without discussing the issue of drug-use by athletes. Where is the line between taking performance enhancing drugs and boosting performance by taking sports drinks, caffeine pills and wearing specially designed clothing and footwear?

So upon closer examination, I’m now feeling rather excited about London 2012 and the teachable moments it offers up. The Go-Givers lessons are a great way to introduce children not only to the history of the Olympics and the values of the Olympic movement but to some of the many controversial issues highlighted by competitions of any kind. Were I back in my Year 5 class, I certainly would have welcomed them as a way to energise my teaching of Ancient Greece – for myself and for my pupils.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching about the Olympics

  1. well my honest opinion of the olympics is well it is competetive else no countrys would get involved and well we just have to waist money to watch people do sports is this how we want out country run ?

  2. Hi we are holding a forum on the Olympic Games which will tackle some of the issues you mention in this post – http://www.headsup.org.uk/content/default.asp – we have loads of background information on the political and social issues behind the games to give students something to get their teeth into. It’s aimed at 11-18 year olds but it might be of interest…Feel free to share widely!

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