Olympic Life Lessons

This summer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will host the world's Summer Olympic Games of 2016 from August 5 to August 21. As the hype for the games continues to increase, so does speculation about which contenders will take home the coveted medals. The games, however, are about more than someone being the best in the world at a particular sporting event. They are also about honoring the sports in general and embracing diversity on a global scale. While the odds of your youngsters becoming Olympic champions are slim, they can become world-class champions when mastering the life skills taught by the Olympics. This summer, use the Olympics to teach your kids about respect for diversity, working towards goals, and sportsmanship.

Right now, the Olympic torch is traveling through the country of Brazil and, on August 5, it will be used to light a cauldron that will burn throughout the duration of the games. Already, the torch has been carried across Greece and Switzerland. The torch itself is one of many aspects of the games that symbolize the host country's culture. This year's torch includes the colors of Brazil's flag and artistic details that represent the country's geography. Students can investigate past Olympic torches to see how each symbolizes the host country.

Creating a mascot is another Olympic tradition host countries oversee. Soon, you will be familiar with the colorful character Vinicius des Moraes, the mascot of the 2016 games. Its namesake is that of a beloved Brazilian poet and musician. With a catlike body and simian tail, the mascot is a blend of species native to Brazil, and its colors symbolize the lively spirit of the Brazilian people. Students can research past mascots to find their connection to the host countries. Which have been inspired by folklore? Extend this activity by having students design their own mascot and explain the inspiration for it.

Perhaps the most culturally-rich event of the Olympics is the opening ceremony. Following the entrance of the host country's heads of state is the playing of the national anthem. Once complete, a grand parade ensues, which features the Olympic participants and the flags of the nations they are representing. The parade is followed by other symbolic rituals and the recitation of Olympic oaths. Once the torch has been used to light the cauldron, artistic entertainment is performed. Perhaps one of the most breathtaking performances was given during the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, during which, 15,000 people played an active role in a production that highlighted Chinese civilization and the Chinese people's hopes for the future. Have students watch clips of past games to find similarities and differences between the opening ceremonies' artistic performances. This lends itself to discussions about what unites a people and how their roots make them unique.

The athletes themselves have much to teach students in the realm of life skills even if your students have no love for a sport. Olympians are outstanding models of people who both set and achieve goals. When we watch the competitions, we see athletes striving to fulfill what may have been their greatest dream in life. To many of the participants, the sports are not just games; the sports are their lives. How did they get to this point? What steps did each take, and what obstacles impeded their paths? Students can research the athletes and even practice writing biographies to understand the benchmarks along the path that an individual took to make it to the Olympics. As students do this, they will see that no athlete attempts to reach his or her goal alone. Important influences help keep the athletes on track and assist them in training as well as in daily life. For Olympians, coaches may make the greatest impact, but students will see that many of the athletes wouldn't be where they are today without other role models, such as family and teachers. Even though your kids may not aspire to be great in a sport, learning to create goals and working to achieve them is a necessity in leading a productive life. Discuss with your children what their goals are and help them identify the steps to take and the people that can help them along the way.

Goal-setting is essential for aspiring Olympic athletes, and they know all too well that the process of achieving a goal will include obstacles. Students can research the challenges people have faced on the road to the Olympics. Physical limitations are common obstacles, but students will find economic problems, and even gender issues, affect those who seem superior in so many ways. These athletes can inspire kids to push through tough times and continue fighting for their dreams. Knowing how to persevere through difficult times is another life skill illustrated by athletes, but not every athlete handles the pressure with dignity. Looking at the degree of sportsmanship athletes maintain during times of struggle opens the door for discussions in ethics and morals. Which athletes lose graciously? Who tries to win no matter the cost? Case studies such as the 1994 assault orchestrated by skater Tonya Harding against her opponent Nancy Kerrigan can show young people how the aftermath of unsportsmanlike conduct affects people for a lifetime. Older children may research the effects of performance enhancing drugs to see the physical repercussions of their and the dishonorable social implications and the consequences imposed on the athletes by the Olympics' governing body.

This August, take advantage of the 2016 Summer Olympics by using the event as a teaching tool. While the games provide ample opportunities for exercises in mathematics, science, and health, don't forget about how they can also be used to teach life skills. Be sure to visit www.olympic.org for the latest news on the current games and history about past games.