These Summer Olympics Teaching Ideas will Bring Home the Gold

These Summer Olympics Teaching Ideas will Bring Home the Gold
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Unit Plan: The Summer Olympics and Conflict

NBC spends about a katrillion billion dollars on 27 TV networks and the internet every four years to televise the Olympics. Someone must like them.

Overview: The purpose of these lesson ideas is to introduce students to important historical and modern day conflicts–external and internal.

Theme: The theme of the unit is self-evident. It’s nearly impossible to eliminate political controversy and world events during competition. We all carry with us bias and prejudice–good and bad. Olympic biases and conflicts should lead to student (and teacher) reflection on the difficulty of objective participation in any event–political, athletic, or day-to-day activities.

The Cold War Just Got Colder

My parents didn’t teach me about animosity. I learned it from watching the Olympics…and from not watching the Olympics. This lesson plan explains.


  1. If you have a map–and if you’re teaching Social Studies, you should–show students a world map from the 1970s and 80s. Point out the Soviet Union and Communist controlled Eastern Europe. Point out the West (Western Europe and North America). Your students' eyes may gloss over in anticipation of an historical Cold War lecture involving the Berlin Wall or Cuban Missile Crisis.
  2. Just when your students think they’re in for the most boring lesson in months, bust out a 3-minute clip of the 1972 Summer Olympics Gold Medal Basketball Game. For those who are not familiar with the 1972 Summer Olympics Gold Medal Basketball Game, it was the biggest travesty in the history of sports–what made it so was the intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union and the worst officiating ever (yes, I’m bitter and I was only three years old at the time).
  3. You may wish to show highlights from the 1980 Miracle on Ice (they made it into a movie) from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York to really stoke patriotic fervor (American schools only) and capture the intensity of the rivalry between the two nations.
  4. Assign students to find results from the U.S.A.- U.S.S.R basketball games from the 1980 Summer Olympics and the 1984 Summer Olympics. You can give them an assignment such as a page summary of the games, a box score analysis, or a 1,000-point extra credit boost to the person who can find a print out of a box score from one of the games. This works well as a homework assignment or a computer lab research assignment. (Just in case you didn’t know, the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in retaliation. This is why the 1,000 extra credit point promise is so funny)
  5. Now it’s time to tie it all up with a discussion on the Olympic ideal vs. Olympic reality. Founder of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin, about the Olympics, stated, “It’s for peace, it’s for education, it’s for health.” (as quoted by Mike Wise in the Washington Post). These Cold War entanglements demonstrate that the Summer Olympics are sometimes about political animosities.

Today’s students may be unaware of the fear, paranoia, and dislike that divided the West from the Soviet Union. This lesson plan will help students understand the hostilities of the Cold War and give them something to talk about with their grandparents.

Gold Medal Social Studies Discussions Inspired by the Summer Olympics


Controversy spilling over into Olympic competition is not exclusive to the Cold War. Similar lessons using the Summer Olympics can be used to introduce the following:

Additional Lesson Topics

  • Palestinian-Israeli conflict - Eleven Israeli athletes were massacred at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich by Palestinian terrorists, who were asking for the release of 200 Arab prisoners and safe passage out of Germany. This incident makes a good jumping point for the Israeli-Palestine conflict along with the threat of terrorism in the modern world.
  • Civil Rights in the United States - The 1960s was a time of political and social upheaval in the United States. A part of that social upheaval involved the Civil Rights movement. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the fight for Civil Rights to the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City after winning the Gold and Bronze medals in the 200 meter dash. As the anthem played, the two African-Americans gave the black power symbol, sparking Olympic controversy to a shocked American audience. Both athletes were expelled from the games.
  • Jesse Owens shoves it in Hitler’s face - Adolf Hitler felt the 1936 Olympics would be a great opportunity to prove the Aryan race as superior. Owens would have none of that nonsense. Owens won four gold medals, was denounced by German officials, ignored by Hitler, and praised by German fans. He even had a street named after him in Germany, forty-eight years after his gold medal performances.
  • Performance Enhancing Drugs: AKA “I swear, quadriceps the size of East Germany is a result of hard work and has nothing to do with performance enhancing drugs” - Steroids, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), and blood-doping have become as much a part of the Olympics as Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals. Famous athletes who have been stripped of Olympic medals include Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, U.S. Track and Field superstar Marion Jones, numerous cyclists, and enough weight-lifters to carry a submarine. Highlights from these fallen athletes inspire discussion on one of modern society’s prevalent problems.

These incidents show that the Summer Olympics are more than just a bunch of girls and guys hanging out and running as fast as they can and so will your lesson plans.


Smith, Stephen A. “Up Front: Remember When Athletes had the Guts to Stand up for Their Beliefs?” ESPN, The Magazine. Accessed 23 May, 2011.

Schapp, Jeremy. “Owens' 1936 Feat Stands Test of Time.” 14 Aug. 2009. Accessed 23 May 2011.

Public Domain images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.