The Olympics: Lesson Plan for Grades 3-12

olympic snow ringsThe Olympics

Subject(s): Social Sciences, History
Grade Level(s): 3-5, 6-8, 9-12


Students will gain a better understanding of the history of the Olympic Games and of how they can be impacted by political and cultural attitudes.


Copy and distribute the printable Resources section below. Have students read the essay for background information and consult any or all of the encyclopedia articles that follow it to learn more about the topic.


Essay: The Olympic Games as we know them are an international sports festival. The Games originated as a way for the ancient Greeks to salute their gods, but the modern Games salute the athletic talents of citizens of all nations.

The Olympic Games occur every four years and consist of both summer and winter events. The Summer Games are scheduled for 2008, 2012, 2016, and so on, while the Winter Games will take place in 2010, 2014, 2018, and so on. Standard events in the Summer Games include basketball, boxing, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, track and field, and many other sports. Winter Game highlights include ice hockey, figure skating, skiing, and bobsledding. Nowadays, extensive television coverage of the Olympic Games brings them to millions of viewers all over the world. As a world event with political undertones, the Olympics have had their share of controversy. Nazi Germany, for example, hosted the Games in 1936 and used the event to propagandize its cause of Aryan racial superiority. A black American track star, Jesse Owens, helped thwart those intentions by winning four gold medals and being mobbed by the public wherever he went in Germany. In 1972 in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, casting a pall over great performances by a number of athletes. The Games have been boycotted and disrupted in other ways as well, but they are most memorable when they do what they set out to do: celebrate the athletes of all nations through fair competition among the best from around the world.

World Book Online Encyclopedia articles:

Olympic Games

World book for kids articles:

Olympic Games


boycott A concerted action to isolate economically or socially an individual, group, or nation to express disapproval or to coerce change.
gold medal The award won by the best individual or team in an Olympic competition. A silver medal is awarded to the second best, and a bronze medal to the third.
propaganda The systematic attempt to manipulate the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of people through the use of words, gestures, slogans, flags, and uniforms. Ideas, facts, or allegations are spread to further a cause or to damage an opposing cause.


Read the World Book Online Encyclopedia or World Book for Kids article on the Olympic Games. Pay particular attention to the names of the sports played at the Summer and Winter Games. Choose a sport you’re not very familiar with. Research that sport, using a variety of resources. If possible, learn how to play the game yourself. Write a summary of your findings about the sport: how it is played, how many people play it, where it is most common, and so on.

For Discussion

If you have ever watched the Olympics on television, what is the greatest or most exciting event or moment you can recall having seen?


Go further by researching one of the following topics:

  • The history of the ancient Greek Olympic Games, including the nature of the competition and the reasons behind the cessation of the games
  • How athletes are chosen to perform in the Olympics and the amount of preparation an individual or team goes through to compete.
  • The U.S. Olympic Committee: structure, function, controversy
  • Great Olympians and what made them great

    See Hot Topic – Sports – Olympics page for additional resources for going further.


Write a statement explaining the purpose of the Olympic Games.


Brain Teaser – Let the games begin!

Test your knowledge of the summer Olympic games. Need help? Use Credo Reference Online.

1. The organization responsible for the Olympics is called the IOC. What do these letters stand for?

2. How often are the summer Olympic Games held: every two years, every four years, or every six years?

3. The first modern summer Olympic Games were held in 1896 – in which Greek city?

4. Which black American athlete enraged Hitler by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin?

5. At the Olympics’ opening ceremony, do the host country’s athletes come first or last in the parade?

6. At the 1972 Olympics, members of the organization Black September took nine Israeli athletes hostage. The Olympics were held in which city that year?

7. Tarzan won three Olympic gold medals in 1924 and two more in 1928. What was his real name?

8. This year’s Olympic Games will be held in the United Kingdom. Is this the first, second, or third time that they have been held here?

9. Which Jamaican athlete won the 100 metres and the 200 metres in the 2008 Olympics?

10. In 1980 and 1984, rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in each country boycotting games hosted by the other. In which cities were these Olympics held?

How did you do?

0 – 1 Mmmm, not exactly brilliant.
2 – 5 A reasonable stab.
6 – 8 A good showing. But there’s still room for improvement!
9 – 10 You really know your stuff. Well done!

Questions set by Tony Augarde (

Cold War Games

Many analysts cite 1989 (the year the Berlin Wall fell) as the end of the Cold War. But there was no hint of thawing relations between the world’s two superpowers at the beginning of the decade at the Moscow Olympic Games.

In fact, there were no American athletes at the games at all. This was because U.S. president Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the games in response to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But President Carter was playing a game of his own—he was trying to draw international attention to Soviet actions in Afghanistan while keeping American actions there secret. President Carter’s boycott, which 61 other countries supported, successfully put Russian officials on the defensive and brought the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan back into the international spotlight. President Carter was also successful in keeping U.S. involvement in Afghanistan secret.

Afghanistan was one of the Cold War’s battlefields, where Americans hoped to weaken the Soviets without fighting them directly. As such, according to Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States more or less goaded the Soviets into invading Afghanistan. For months before the invasion, Brzezinski said in a 1998 interview, the United States had been arming anti-Communist Muslim fighters (the mujahideen).

In providing weapons to the Afghan mujahideen, Brzezinski implied, the Carter administration was knowingly—and, what’s more, deliberately—increasing the likelihood that the Soviets would invade Afghanistan to prop up Kabul’s Communist government.

The Afghan mujahideen enjoyed considerable support
from the United States in the 1980’s.
© Getty Images

It’s clear then that the 1980 boycott had to do with a larger game than the Olympics—a game played between the Soviet Union and the United States for much higher stakes.


Olympic Boycotts: Always Tricky

Learning Activity

  • How might wider knowledge of American actions in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion have weakened support for the U.S.-led Olympic boycott?
  • Why might people who advocated boycotting the 2008 Beijing games seek to downplay or suppress information about rebel crimes in Darfur?
  • Tensions within states—not only between states—are also sometimes on display during Olympic games. For example, indigenous Canadians have objected to the design and use of the inukshuk (an indigenous stone landmark) as the symbol of the 2010 Vancouver games. The inukshuk is an important cultural symbol that objectors feel is being used inappropriately.
  • In Credo Reference read about the bombing of Guernica”. This sections explain the symbolic importance to the Basques of the ancient oak tree in Guernica.  Pretend that Spain (rather than Brazil) won its bid to host the 2016 Winter Olympics and decided to use an oak tree as its symbol for the games. Would the Basques likely support or reject such a symbol and why? What would such a symbol communicate to the rest of the world about Madrid’s values and relationship to the Basque Country?
  • Politics and the Olympic Games

    Black Power salute at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City (1968)

    Although the modern Olympic Games were founded on the notion of international cooperation, the games have sometimes fallen prey to forces and events that have undermined this original ideal. Protests, boycotts, and even terrorism have become a part of Olympic history.

    From the 1950s to the 1980s, rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was rooted in the struggle of the Cold War, resulted in each country boycotting the games hosted by the other (Moscow in 1980, and Los Angeles in 1984).

    Politics have also influenced the Olympics in other ways, such as the Nazi propaganda in the 1936 Berlin games and the pressures that led to the exclusion of athletes from white-ruled Rhodesia from the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Munich was also the site of the most violent episode in Olympic history, in which nine Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

    In these and other incidents, the Olympics became a platform for various individuals or groups to promote their particular political agendas.

    Learning Activity

    Find and read articles  to understand the historical context of these events—what happened, what the motivations of the key players were, what the political effect of these actions was on the world at large, etc.

    Olympic Boycotts – a Bad Idea

    Pointless to Some – Time hasn’t healed everything for the 1980 U.S. Olympians who didn’t have a chance to compete.

    The Olympics

    Olympic Boycotts: Always Tricky

    Playing the Game: Drugs and politics in the Olympics

    Find other articles in SIRS Knowledge Source

    • Do you think individuals, groups or nations are ever justified in using the Olympic Games as a political platform?
    • Should athletes and the nations they represent put aside promoting their various political ideologies during the Games in order to foster a spirit of world cooperation, or can the Olympics sometimes represent an opportunity to bring attention to some of the world’s most pressing problems?

    History of Modern Olympic Games

    The first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896

    The 1896 revival of the Olympic Games of ancient Greece came about under the direction of Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937).

    Founded on the ideals of world cooperation and athletic excellence, the first modern games were held in Athens, Greece. Since then, barring times of international conflict, the Olympics have been held throughout the world, with the number of competitors, nations, and events increasing steadily.

    For others, the Olympics are a modern manifestation of an ancient tradition; they offer a chance to revel in feelings of national pride based on the athletic accomplishments of their countrymen and women. And for still others, the Olympics are a time of international cooperation; athletes and spectators from around the world get to know each other. The games celebrate the diversity of the world’s peoples, countries, and cultures.

    People participate in and watch the Olympics for a variety of reasons. For many, the Olympic Games provide an unsurpassed opportunity to see some of the world’s most gifted athletes in competition.

    Path Finder – these articles along with others can be found in SIRS Knowledge Source

    Learning Activity

    • Explore the history of the Olympic Games. Pay particular attention to the historical timeline, read some of the periodical articles dealing with Olympic history and ideals, and look at a number of the photos that have been taken during the games.
  • Then assign students to write a 500- to 1,000-word personal essay on what the Olympic Games mean to them. Caution students about relying too heavily on generalities in their essays. Have them support their ideas about what the Olympics mean by referring to specific events in the history of the Olympic Games and/or by referring to memories they have of watching the games.