The Beijing Olympic Games in August 2008 will mark a century of New Zealand participation at the modern Olympics. The Games offer teachers and students an opportunity not only to explore the Olympics in general but to examine their place in New Zealand's history. The Olympic Games have been an important part of New Zealand's interaction with the rest of the world.

But there has always been much more to the Olympics than the efforts of athletes. The Games have been marred by political wrangling, boycotts, controversy, even tragedy. From the Nazi spectacle of Berlin to the Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles boycotts, New Zealand athletes have often been caught up in events far beyond their control.

Sport has shaped our sense of cultural well-being. As a small nation we have often seen achievement at sporting events like the Olympics as a measure of our progress or status as a nation. The number of medals we have won has been used as a measurement of national self-worth.

All of these are angles that will enable social studies and history teachers to use this major current event as a springboard into further learning. has developed a number of resources that explore New Zealand's first Olympic century. You can find out more about these here. This material will be of great value to teachers and students working at various levels. 

We welcome contributions from other teachers and students. See the Community Contribution section at the bottom of the page if you would like to ask a question or suggest further teaching ideas that would be useful to others.

Social studies

Using the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a backdrop, schools could explore all of the conceptual strands for this learning area. For instance:

  • Identity, Culture, and Organisation

Students could explore the particular role that participation in the Olympics has played in shaping our identity as a nation. How have the Games and some of the individuals who have competed over time contributed to a sense of national pride? How have the Olympics shaped our reputation as a nation? Why is sport (and success in it) so important to many New Zealanders? Should sport be used to promote strong feelings of national identity and pride?

  • Place and Environment

There is an opportunity with this strand to look at the host country as well as countries competing. Students could draw the name of a competing country out of a hat and follow that country's progress thorough the games. They could compile a fact-file on that country for a classroom noticeboard, featuring basic statistics, a flag and a map, for instance. Alternatively, they could introduce their selected country to the class by way of a small oral presentation, with their country identified on a class map with the student's name attached. Another possible activity is to have your very own class opening ceremony where students march in to class with the flag of their selected country.

  • Continuity and Change

This strand is perfect for exploring previous Olympic Games that New Zealanders have attended. Students could choose one of the past Olympiads and research New Zealand's involvement: the medal winners, the highs and the lows. They could consider the differences between now and the past in terms of travelling to the Games or perhaps the level of support provided to the athletes.

  • The Economic World

The Olympics are a huge economic event. The costs of hosting the Games are enormous and beyond the reach of many nations. There are vast sums of money to be made from selling television rights and merchandise and from tourism. Large multinational companies pay a lot of money to advertise at Games venues and to have their products made available during the Olympics.

In addition, the New Zealand government provides financial support for the athletes selected and to assist our participation in the Olympics. Is this something we should be spending money on?

The Olympic Games are a perfect vehicle for a social inquiry approach to a number of the achievement objectives associated with the social sciences conceptual strands.


The types of sport we play and who we compete against reflect our colonial past. As a small nation we have often presented ourselves as the underdog taking on the might of the world. Any success is therefore greeted as a significant achievement. The mood of the nation is often influenced by sporting success. A successful All Black season can contribute to a general sense of well-being as a nation; a poor one can have the opposite effect. The euphoria that greeted the America's Cup win in 1995 highlighted the value that many New Zealanders place on sporting achievement.

Sport has contributed to the formation of a distinctive sense of identity by particular individuals or groups. The shared experiences of New Zealanders through sport have contributed to the development of a sense of what it is to be a New Zealander.

  • New Zealand's involvement in the Olympics is relevant to the NCEA Level 1 topic New Zealand's Search for Security 1945-1985. The All Black tour of South Africa was responsible for a number of African nations deciding to boycott the 1976 Montreal Games. Our ties with the United States saw us participate in the boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. These issues could also be used as the basis for the research standards for this level.
  • The NCEA Level 2 topic The growth of New Zealand identity 1890-1980 provides an ideal opportunity to incorporate the Olympics into a history programme by looking at the wider role of sport in defining and expressing a sense of national identity. As such, it could be used as a context for achievement objective 2.6: examine individual or group identity in a historical setting, in an essay. These issues could also be used as the basis for the research standards for this level.

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