I’ll admit that my hopes for a peaceful future get fired up during the Olympics. I am a fan of the accomplishments and striving of each generation of athletes who gather in an Olympic Village to compete. I’m also a fan of the idea that people all over the world pause to appreciate and cheer for them. Yes, I know the games are commercialized, controversies abound, and media coverage—in every country—often tends to promote nationalism versus a sense of global community. I still love the Games.
I also love the opportunities Olympics' issues offer to thoughtful teachers and students. Here are ways to continue the excitement of the games in the classroom, with an eye to enhancing critical thinking, media literacy, discussion of human rights, and appreciation of sportsmanship and athleticism.
Look at nationalism versus global unity:
Colman McCarthy is one of my heroes. Former Washington Post journalist McCarthy details his transition to peace educator in his 2002 book I’d Rather Teach Peace. He directs the Center for Teaching Peace, and if you don’t know of McCarthy’s work, please visit the links below. Perhaps he points to the need for peace education best by asserting “Unless we teach our children peace, somebody else will teach them violence.”
In 2006, McCarthy wrote an article entitled The Olympics are too Politicized, describing the career and critical thinking of 1990s Olympic speed skater Nathanial Mills. Mills valued the games—as many of us do—as an opportunity for internationalism and the way they bring athletes and spectators together in pursuit of and appreciation of excellence. However, McCarthy wrote, Mills began to look at the Olympics with a more critical eye:
It was only after he retired from competition that Mr. Mills saw how nationalism and pseudopatriotism degraded the Olympics. Why, he wondered, are national flags raised at the medal ceremonies? Why are national anthems played?
If the Games become contests between hired gladiators of various nations with the idea of building national prestige or proving that one system of government or other is better than another, they will have lost all purpose.
"The simplest way to de-nationalize the medal ceremony," Mr. Mills believes, "is to raise the Olympic flag and sound an Olympic anthem when awarding the winner. The Olympic flag, representing the continents on which humanity resides and not the nation-states artificially created upon them, has become one of the most recognized positive symbols on the planet. A denationalized ceremony would simply recognize the accomplishment of the winner—and all competitors—as a victory for humankind, giving everyone cause to say, 'That is one of our own….'"
At the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, where he spoke as a representative of the U.S. Athletic Commission, Mr. Mills expressed those views. He was rebuked as a dreamer, an agitator and an unpatriotic nag….
Such thinking is beyond the executives of NBC, the Olympic broadcaster providing coverage—if past performance means anything—gushingly pro-American. NBC might as well become the Nationalistic Broadcasting Company….
Think about media coverage with your students. Have they thought about the nationalism versus patriotism versus internationalism concepts Mills and McCarthy raise? Probably not.
- Classroom activity to promote media literacy and a discussion of the nationalism factor of the Olympics: Invite students to browse lead stories from an international array of news sources during the time period of the 2012 Olympic Games. Assign pairs of students to work in teams to represent different countries. Ask them to count mentions of “their” country’s athletes versus those of other countries on “frontpage” headlines. (See the link below to REFDESK, a compendium of national and international online newspapers.) Follow with a discussion of Mills's suggestion of abandoning national flag ceremonies for Olympic flag ceremonies. I can guarantee an engaging debate on the symbolic nature of national and international flags, media focus, and the role of the Olympics in international life.
Think about human rights and the Olympics:
While McCarthy decries the over-politicization of the Olympics, many wonder why certain issues are not discussed. Which countries encourage women to compete? Where are women’s rights discouraged? What are the economic barriers to athletes and families? Which countries support athletic development. Is that support “fair?” What is the role of the Olympian as role model? Does an athlete on the global stage have a duty to speak out against human rights abuses in his/her country? What happens to athletes who go “out of bounds” to bring such questions to the fore?
In the 1968 example of U.S. gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, their demonstration against racism and poverty caused immediate controversy. Most of our students have not heard of Olympians Smith and Carlos. They should know what they did on the medal stand—and more importantly—why.
- Classroom activity to discuss the 1968 Mexico Olympic Award Ceremony in which U.S. gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised fists on the podium to bring attention to human rights issues. Watch several minutes of the Democracy Now recap of the race and ceremony (and a compelling interview with Juan Carlos in 2011). Have students read Dave Zirin’s Fists of Freedom article. Pose the following questions for your students: Is it appropriate for an Olympian to use the award pedestal to make a statement about human rights in his/her country? Would the American media applaud a Chinese athlete who did this today? Did the raised-fist athletes disgrace or enhance the image of the United States? What happened to the careers of these athletes compared to their peers? Who supported these athletes’ stands? Why? These and other questions will engage your students in active thinking about the roles of athletes and the Olympics.
Think about questions of disability versus ability and the example of Oscar Pistorius:
Colleague Matt Newcomb and I involve our 7th and 8th grade debate class students in this topic with a debate of the appropriateness of runner Oscar Pistorius competing in the Olympics. What’s the controversy? Pistorius is a double amputee from the knee down. Nicknamed “The Bladerunner,” Pistorius runs with prosthetic limbs—spring-like devices that have some commentators crying unfair advantage. Others applaud the resilience of Pistorius, born without bones in his lower legs, to have made such strides in the demanding sport. Denied permission to compete in the 2008 Beijing Games, Pistorius ran in London in 2012. I cried as I watched him run.
- Classroom activity: Invite students to read the Christian Science Monitor article about the Pistorius controversy. Let them watch YouTube videos of on-street interviews and his competitions. Using such resources, invite students to record pros and cons of allowing athletes with prosthetic devices to compete against so-called “able-bodied” athletes. (Debate that term as well!) In addition to the critical thinking that will result, awareness of disability rights is but one outcome of this activity.
Think about sportsmanship and the Games:
Is it wrong to conserve energy in one race to more effectively compete in another? Can one fairly fall down after starting a race to ensure a better re-start? Should a team “throw” a qualifying match to pull an easier opponent on the way to the medal stand? These are questions raised in the 2012 Olympics that will surely engage students. The most visible occurrence of such strategy was in the badminton qualifying rounds, where top teams were judged to be playing poorly to fare better against easier opponents later in the competition. Eight Olympic badminton players were eliminated from the Games. But some highly decorated Olympians admit to reserving energy in one race to better compete later. Is this unsportsmanlike behavior?
- Classroom activity: The questions raised in the Los Angeles Times article (and online videos) will fuel formal debates and informal discussions in your classroom. Consider such questions as the following: What is the role of sportsmanship in the Olympics? What is the role of sportsmanship at our school? Does our school have a “win at all costs” culture? Is it cheating if you don’t try your best? Should all students have the opportunity to play some sport during the school day? Are some sports valued more highly than others? Why? Who benefits from the popularity of sports in our culture? Your students will take over this discussion, raising numerous issues of personal and school relevance.
The wrap up: Regardless of where you stand on the Olympics, they offer opportunities for us to teach students to think critically. Watching how we watch the Olympics—as citizens of one country or a global family (or both?), evaluating the role of Olympic athletes in consciousness raising, discussing the meaning of able-bodiedness, and bringing questions of sportsmanship from the Olympics to students’ personal lives are valuable ways for us to change watching the Olympics to thinking the Olympics.
Links to resources:
- Link to an interview with Colman McCarthy on teaching peace in schools: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/apr/27/colman-mccarthy-teaching-peace-americas-schools/
- Link to Colman McCarthy’s The Class of Nonviolence readings and teaching guides: http://salsa.net/peace/conv/
- Link to McCarthy’s article The Olympics are too Politicized: http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/ViewpointsDetailsPage/ViewpointsDetailsWindow?failOverType=&query=&prodId=OVIC&windowstate=normal&contentModules=&mode=view&displayGroupName=Viewpoints&limiter=&currPage=&disableHighlighting=true&source=&sortBy=&displayGroups=&zid=&action=e&catId=&activityType=&scanId=&documentId=GALE%7CEJ3010557207
- Link to refdesk.com—Newspapers USA and Worldwide : http://www.refdesk.com/paper.html
- Link to 2011 Democracy Now program, John Carlos, 1968 Olympic U.S. Medalist, on the Revolutionary Sports Moment that Changed the World: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/10/12/john_carlos_1968_olympic_us_medalist
- Link to Dave Zirin’s article Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools: http://www.good.is/post/fists-of-freedom-an-olympic-story-not-taught-in-schools/
- Link to Christian Science Monitor article: Oscar Pistorius achieves Olympic dream, advances to 400-meter semifinal http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Olympics/2012/0804/Oscar-Pistorius-achieves-Olympic-dream-advances-to-400-meter-semifinal
- Link to YouTube video: Should Oscar Pistorius compete in the Olympics? - That Paralympic Blog http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwtOENfqat0
- Link to Los Angeles Times article: London Olympics badminton scandal: Is it always wrong to lose on purpose? http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-oly-spirit-of-games-20120802,0,2029408.story