Harnessing the Olympic Spirit

Use the energy and excitement of the 2014 Winter Olympics to motivate your class to research and write.

By Elijah Ammen

map of sochi

The month of February is going to be a challenging time, and not for the usual reasons—the freezing cold, the lack of sunshine, or the absence of holiday breaks. Mostly, I'll be worried that my DVR is not collecting all of the Olympic events while I'm teaching, running student clubs, and manning the concession stand for basketball games.

One day, I realized that if I am distracted by Shaun White defying gravity on a snowboard, my kids might be as well. Why not use that passion as a tool to teach critical thinking and researching skills? With the duration of the Winter Olympics and the variety of countries and competitors, there are countless ways to analyze the Olympics. With so much information and data, it's important to have a concise focus for research. You can expand or focus the amount of time you spend, depending on the amount of time you have available.


As you build up to the opening ceremonies on Friday, February 7th, there are several key aspects of the Olympics that can be researched. For younger grades, you can research the mascots that are created for every Olympic Games, or the history of the Winter Olympics, which are much more modern (and smaller) than the Summer Olympics. There are a variety of places to find detailed histories:
  • Discovery News covers some of the most memorable moments of the Winter Olympics.
  • CNN has a look back at each of the previous games.
  • The History Channel has a history of the origins of the first Winter Olympics.
  • World Atlas has list of all the Winter Olympics locations since 1924

For older students, you can dig deeper into some of the controversial aspects of the Sochi games:

  • Business Week breaks down the cost of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, which has become the most expensive Olympic Games ever, beating out even the Bejing Summer Olympics (which had many more venues and events). 
  • Recent terrorist bombings in Russia have raised safety concerns for the games, leading to heightened security measures.
  • Russia's anti-gay laws have caused a controversy, particularly for LGBT athletes competing in the games.

During the Olympics

Every day, there will be new statistics, recaps, and predictions for events. Capture the immediacy of the moment with real-time updates on the Olympic website and the Sochi website. Your young writers can sharpen their journalistic skills with reporting on a variety of subjects:
  • A human-interest feature story on an athlete and the challenges they faced in order to reach the games.
  • A compare/contrast paper of two or more Winter Olympic athletes.
  • A class debate on who deserves the title of Greatest Winter Olympian, based on what the class determines as the qualities of great Olympian.
  • A creative narrative essay from the point of view of an Olympian in competition.

You can also track things on posters in your room, like a medal count for the different countries, or the new records that are being set. This can be something to have a student leader update every class. You can make it a challenge by having the kids make predictions and having a prize for the winner. Anything to build excitement helps with engagement in more rigorous activities.


This might be the most melancholy part for me. The athletes appear on a few Subway commercials and Wheaties boxes, and then slowly fade out of memory until they are paraded out in 2018 (let's hear it for Pyeongyang!). But you don't have to let the Olympic spirit die just because the torch has moved on. You can still have some creative projects:
  • Advertising: Olympians have a short window of popularity where they can be on commercials, give endorsements, or have terrible SNL appearances (we're looking at you, Michael Phelps). Have your class split into groups and create an advertising campaign for a product, using an Olympian as their spokesperson. Have them pitch the product to the rest of the class, with a mock-up of a flyer, billboard, or commercial featuring the Olympian.
  • Evaluations: Once the hype is over, have your class evaluate and rate the games. What were the highlights? What moments will go down in history? What were the most compelling stories? As they, reflect, have them look ahead to the build-up for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and even to the 2018 Pyeongyang games. How will this year's athletes fare in four years?
  • Create a Bid: Think you know the city to host the Olympics in the future? Create an Olympic bid like this lesson and examine all the criteria that go into a city hosting the Olympics.

Lesson Planet Resources:

A PowerPoint that uses the five themes of geography to help understand Olympic bids. Use as a model for your own Olympic bidding on cities of your choice.
Use this recap of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games to model for your class and show previous stories from a more recent Winter Olympics. 
Looking to fulfill your class's exercise quota? Take a break with a modified Classroom Olympics to allow students to have fun and compete in events that don't require a ski slope.