Math at Work Olympic Edition: How Is Math Used in Sports?

Wf1503200 Math At Work Olympic Edition Deedee Trotter Hero Image

Find Out as Students Meet Three Elite Sports Professionals. Plus, Download Free Math Olympic® Games Activities!

In the sports world, calculations and mathematical thinking are everywhere. This episode of Math at Work, and the seven activities below, help illustrate to students some of the key roles that math plays in athletics—and beyond. Much of sports-related math involves being measured, in categories including speed, distance, repetitions in the gym, and calories, to name a few.

This episode of Math at Work takes three student athletes to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to find out what it takes to become an Olympian™. Filming was completed in January 2020, and the episode was intended to premiere in conjunction with the Summer Olympic Games originally scheduled for 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. However, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the decision by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to postpone the Games until 2021. The decision was a disappointment to the elite athletes who had been training to compete—as well as the millions of people around the world who had been looking forward to watching them—but it was a necessary step to ensure their safety and health.

Now with the Summer Games completed in 2021 and the Winter Games being held in 2022, we are reminded that the peace, friendship, hope, tolerance, and greatness symbolized by the Olympic torch are never out of date. So, if you're itching to bring some Olympic action into your learning, check out the episode and explore the math Olympic activities below, part of our ever-growing collection of free activities.

Click the image below to play the full episode.

The Math at Work web series features industry leaders who work directly with students to demonstrate the power and importance of real-life math.

This episode of Math at Work takes place before the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and is hosted by DeeDee Trotter, a three-time Olympian in Track and Field (2004, 2008, and 2012), and spotlights student athletes Tahlaya (Tay), Delaney, and Evan. They meet Olympic javelin thrower Kara Winger, Paralympic™ cycling hopeful Jason Macom, and USOPC dietician Sally Baumann, who demonstrate their individual areas of expertise and the math they use to do what they do best. Along the way, Tay, Delaney, and Evan discover how an Olympian practices, exercises, and eats to stay in top form.

Try These Ready-to-Use Math Summer and Winter Olympic Activities

Although this video and the activities below focus on the summer Olympics, the lessons apply year-round! After all, dietitian Sally Baumann works with winter Olympians as well. Want to give your students an even greater sense of why math is so important and how it works in the sports world?

Activity 1: Javelin Analysis

In this activity for Grades 6–8, students analyze videos of javelin throws and graph the relationship between angle and distance. (Specific to Summer Games)

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Activity 2: Snow Angles

In the previous activity, students analyze the relationship between angle and distance of a javelin throw. Javelin throwers are not the only athletes making use of angles though! In fact, all sports—whether played during the winter or summer—incorporate angles in some way. Consider the ski jump. You can repurpose Javelin Analysis but with ski jumping instead. Have students search for videos of ski jumps and pause them while the jumpers are mid-air. Students should measure the angle between the two skis. Then they can create a graph of angle (horizontal axis) vs. distance (vertical axis). Each student can collect multiple data points, or you can have the whole class find data points and have students graph all of them. Does there appear to be a relationship between the angle of the skis and the distance of the jump? What are some other angles that students could test besides the angle between the two skis? (Specific to Winter Games)

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Activity 3: Post-Workout Smoothie

In this activity for Grades 4–6, students create an athlete, research the nutritional information of different ingredients, and use that information to make the perfect post-workout smoothie for their athlete. (Applies to Summer or Winter Games)

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Activity 4: Medal Functions

In this activity for Grades 7–9, students research data about Olympic and/or Paralympic medals won by different countries, and then build a graph based on their findings. (Applies to Summer or Winter Games)

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Activity 5: Setting Goals

In this math Olympic games activity for Grades 6+, students set a goal and track their progress. For students who are first learning about rates, the activity not only shows a real-world example, it also helps improve their lives along the way. For older students, the activity has a high ceiling and can contextualize topics including multivariable functions and nonlinear approximations. (Applies to Summer or Winter Games)

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Activity 6: Olympic Scavenger Hunt

Get your students watching the Games with a critical eye! Create a list of math objects to hunt for. The list can be created for students at a foundational math level (basic shapes, numbers 1–10) or adapted to include more advanced content. Consider the following lists to check off while watching the Olympics, and feel free to create your own. Encourage students to both watch the sports on the screen and also listen to the commentary!

  • Angles (obtuse, acute, right, 180°, greater than 180°)
  • Number types (decimal, fraction, negative, prime, composite)
  • Place value (thousands, hundreds, tens, ones, tenths, hundredths, thousandths)
  • Mathematical vocabulary ("equal," "less," "greater," "approximate," "function," "slope," "fraction")

Look closely at what you're teaching right now. What words and concepts might show up during an Olympic sport? (Applies to Summer or Winter Games)

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Activity 7: Paralympic Hopeful

In this activity for Grades 4–5, students work in small groups, drawing a bicycle and a track and then racing the bicycle around the track. They graph data to see how close they can get to pacing themselves like an elite cyclist. To do this activity virtually, have students try on their own using a digital timer and then report back with their data. (Specific to Summer Games)

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Learn more about the Math at Work web series: you and your students will watch industry leaders work with real students to demonstrate the importance of math in jobs across the globe.

Olympic®, Olympian™, and Paralympic™ are trademarks or registered trademarks of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. This blog post, originally published in 2020, has been updated for 2022.

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