Carrying the Torch for Olympic Values

An opportunity to work with the International Olympic Commission has allowed the Junior School’s Gary Barber to share the spirit of Olympism with children all over the world.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please listen carefully.” We have just finished watching the closing arguments in this mock trial and the tiny judge – a 10-year-old student – now addresses her audience with composure and gravitas. “You have 15 minutes to debate the issues surrounding this case and arrive at a verdict: is cheating in sport ever justified?”

The Junior School gym is packed with breakout groups comprised of students, parents and Olympic athletes, confidently led by Grade 5 students. Parents, well-meaning and anxious to reinforce the fundamentals of childhood ethics, quickly veer toward the conclusion that cheating is never justified. However, their young hosts are having none of it and press them to explore all the angles.

What about the case of the young Russian athlete who testified earlier? What if you are at the mercy of a state-run machine that is only interested in producing Olympic medalists, and those in authority – who control all aspects of your life and well-being – insist you take performance-enhancing drugs? Consider the Kenyan athlete accused of blood doping whose family was mired in poverty and condemned to stay there unless he seized this opportunity to give them a better life. Was he justified?

The trial is an example of the themes explored in the Olympic Values Education Program (OVEP), a toolkit that encourages children to explore the meaning of fair play and the spirit of Olympism. What’s unique about tonight is that the lesson is being orchestrated by the author of the most recent edition of OVEP, Junior School teacher and assistant director Mr. Gary Barber.

The Olympics Day event at the Junior School in March was the culmination of more than a year of work for Gary, most of it squeezed into the wee hours of the morning after a full day of teaching. Gary’s work – carried out on behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and in partnership with collaborators in Switzerland, South Africa and Finland – has resulted in a set of resources that will help educators all over the globe teach Grades 2-12 students about Olympic values.

The Olympic Values Education Program started in 2005 as a way for the IOC to spread the gospel of the benefits of physical activity and sport among the world’s youth. The first edition of the toolkit was released in 2006 and was rolled out globally over the next decade.

By 2015, the IOC was ready to develop a second edition and had tasked IOC project manager Ms. Elizabeth Sluyter-Mathew with the job. For Gary, the timing was serendipitous. He was given a SMUS Head of School Professional Development award at the end of the 2014-15 school year to explore OVEP and he used the proceeds to visit the Olympic Museum at Lausanne, Switzerland. Before leaving, he leveraged his network to make some contacts at the IOC and ultimately met with Ms. Sluyter-Mathew while he was there.

“I first met Gary with my colleague Nuria Puig Brandes from the Olympic Studies Centre and I must admit that we were both touched with the powerful story that Gary shared with us from his dual perspective as parent and as a teacher,” Ms. Sluyter-Mathew recalls of their meeting. Impressed by Gary’s “sport pedagogical expertise and holistic approach to education,” she asked Gary for ideas.

“I talked to her about creating practical activities that reflect 21st-century learning competencies such as critical thinking and media literacy,” Gary recalls. Shortly after, Ms. Sluyter-Mathew invited him to join the effort to redevelop the whole program.

For Gary, it was an incredible opportunity to unite his calling in education with his lifelong passion for high performance athletics and the spirit of Olympism. As a boy, his interest in the Olympics was sparked by learning that he had a personal connection to the Games –
his great uncle Robert Tisdale won the 400-metre hurdles for Ireland at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Throughout Gary’s teaching career, he has always tried to include units on the Olympics to help students understand that the Games can develop values that shape our character.

“The essence of the program is giving them activities to explore various elements – the torch, the Olympic truce, the dove as the symbol of peace, the Olympic oath, influential athletes in history, the way the Olympic Games have transformed countries and cultures, and have brought people together,” he says.

The spirit of Olympism is the less renowned pillar of the Olympic movement, but it was crucial to the vision of Pierre Coubertin when he founded the modern Olympics in the late 19th century. An intellectual and member of the French aristocracy, Coubertin was deeply interested in the role of sport in education, and pursued the idea that organized sport could build moral character and social cohesion.

For Coubertin, the grand object in reviving the Olympic Games was to promote a set of values that would be shared by nations around the world. Advancing those values is the role of Olympism, which is defined by the IOC as “philosophy of life which places sport at the service of humanity.” Olympism’s three key values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect are applicable, says the IOC, “both on the field of play and in everyday life.” (“Olympism and the Olympic Movement”)

It’s precisely that aspect of the Olympic movement that Gary finds so powerful. “I’m interested in the quieter subtext of the Games,” he says. “There are all these small moments in the Olympics that I love for their messages of achievement with responsibility, social justice, resilience, courage.” Messages, he says, that also reflect the values we cherish at the school. “When we speak about passion and compassion, our school embodies the core values of Olympism so beautifully.”

Under the umbrella of Olympism’s values, OVEP adds another layer of five education themes that include the pursuit of excellence; respect; fair play; balance of body and mind; and joy of effort. For Gary, the parallels with the SMUS mission and vision are strong and he suspects this is the reason his young students were so keen to delve into the Olympic values as they were preparing the courtroom dramatization about cheating in sport.

“I wrote the drama around issues I thought would be important for them to explore, but some of the issues were quite complex – better suited to Grades 8-12 – and I wondered if they could pull it off,” he recalls. Their questions told him that not only could they handle it, they really wanted to roll up their sleeves and dig deeply into the questions.

The week after Olympics Night at the Junior School, Gary took the Grade 5 classes to the Senior School to lead the same mock trial for the Grade 12 Law class. “The conversations going on were incredibly rich,” Gary recounts. “They were completely engaged and articulating the essential elements of these arguments, presenting points of view, weighing evidence and it shows me the incredible capacity these kids have to embrace complex issues and connect them to their lives. It was very rewarding.”

The second edition of OVEP featuring Gary’s work launched this May. Calling the collaboration with Gary “inspiring and productive,” Ms. Sluyter-Mathew goes on to say that his “creativity, Olympic knowledge and pedagogical approach has been key in the quality and integrated content of this new learning resource.”

Now students all over the world will have the opportunity to learn about the Olympic Values. “Regardless of whether these children have an opportunity to experience an Olympics personally, they will have the opportunity to experience Olympism and have it give shape and meaning to their lives,” Gary says. For our own Junior School students, it already has.

This story appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of School Ties.

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School Ties is St. Michaels University School's biannual alumni magazine, highlighting the amazing work being done around the world by our school's alumni.

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