February 1, 2018

Bring the Olympics to School with Books, Lessons and Conversation

New American role models will be created with the commencement of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Incredible feats of athleticism will inspire global fascination and broken records will stoke the fires within the next generation of Olympians.

Indeed, the Olympics are one of the few worldwide events that capture the attention of almost everyone everywhere regardless of age, occupation or nationality. The event itself is full of history and yet also an inextricable part of current popular culture. It’s this that makes it so rich and perfect for classroom exploration.

There are a myriad of ways that educators can bring the Olympics into their schools and classrooms. We’ve taken a dive into that snow-covered mountain and compiled our recommended ideas into three separate categories: books to read, lessons to teach and conversations to facilitate.


  • The Boys in the Boat — This young readers adaptation of an incredible slice of Olympic history tells the story of the University of Washington crew team. As tremendous underdogs going into the competition, the book is all about teamwork, discipline and how hard work begets greatness.
  • Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith — Gabby Douglas captured the entire world when she won gold in 2012. As a young black woman, she instantly became a sorely needed role model for young girls of color. This book tells her story in her own words.
  • Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance — Simone Biles came into the spotlight on the US women’s gymnastics team in 2016. Having also become a role model to young girls everywhere, she writes about her own childhood and challenges in this book, about her time in foster care and the determination it took for her to make it to the top.
  • The Magnificent Seven — This higher-level read tells the story of the first women to win team gymnastics gold at the Olympics. It profiles each of the seven history-making women, complete with photos.
  • Letters to a Young Gymnast — Nadia Comaneci, one of the initial pioneers of women’s gymnastics, wrote this book to pass along stories and lessons to the next generation of Olympians, but the competitive mindset she explores creates commentary that anyone can relate to.
  • Finding the Edge: My Life on the Ice —  For a story about a Winter Olympian, Karen Chen’s autobiography is a great place to start. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Chen’s hard work enabled her win national championships.
  • The Boys of Winter — In 1980, the US national hockey team did the unthinkable, taking down Russia’s powerhouse hockey team to win gold at the Olympics. This book chronicles the story of how a group of scrappy young men were able to pull together and achieve a miracle.

For a full list of books related to the Olympics, check out this Goodreads list.


The Olympic Museum has a great selection of carefully crafted lesson plans, all guaranteed to be accurate and informative. While there are plenty of lessons that cover the history and founding of the Olympics, the best ones push beyond that to delve thoughtfully into other areas of culture all related and intertwined with the Olympics:

  • The History of Sports Photography — Why did photographers first start trying to capture motion? How was it done? This could be a great lesson either in the classroom or in art class.
  • Finding the Roots of Sports — Sports are culture, but we usually don’t think of them that way. Nor do we often think about how sports were even invented, but they almost all stemmed from something that was integral to the society of their origin. This lesson expands the mind of our students to think about sports in a new light.
  • Broadcasting the Olympic Games — Nowadays, we flip on NBC and expect unparalleled Olympic coverage, complete with expert commentary and a plethora of “how did they get that” camera angles. This lesson explains how Olympic coverage developed to where it is today.


For older students, the Olympic games bring an opportunity to not only watch cool sports but also think critically about them. An event of this size and scale inevitably affects those in and around it, and we owe it to our students to show them how to analyze current events like this from nuanced lenses.

  • How sustainable are the Olympics? After the dazzling Opening and Closing Ceremonies have concluded, after the flags have flown and the medals have been awarded, what happens to all those impressive stadiums and athletic facilities? Many news outlets like Business Insider have complied photos of these venues after the pomp and circumstance, and have found them wasted, rundown and depressing. Hosting the Olympics are an honor, but how much does it actually cost a city and a government to do so? Should sustainability plans become a requirement in future Olympic bids?
  • How are women covered by Olympic media/broadcasters? The treatment of women has become very prevalent in the current national conversation, and students have more likely than not caught wind of it. The classroom is the perfect safe space to explore why women’s inequality has become such a hot topic and the ways that inequality manifests, especially in regards to how the media speaks about female athletes. Teaching Tolerance published a thought-provoking blog post about how the media let women down during its 2016 Summer Olympics coverage, and the piece could be used as a springboard to start this discussion.
  • Is it appropriate to use sporting events as stages for protest? The 2017 NFL football season was wreathed in controversy as more and more football players sat or knelt during the national anthem. But it wasn’t the first time athletics used a sporting event as venue for protest. Similar shows of activism have occurred in the Olympics as well, like when Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their 1968 Olympic medals with fists in the air while standing on the podium. Protests in Olympic history even occurred on a global scale, like when the US organized a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. Making students aware of these moments is step one, but push them even further by asking them to think about the act of protesting at a sporting event. Is it appropriate? Is it necessary? Is it different or similar to when a musical artist writes songs that include their own opinions on society or politics? Have students do more research on past protests from athletes and allow them to form their own opinion.

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