Which of the following would you say is the greatest Olympic athlete?

How about Usain Bolt – the Jamaican sprinter and fastest man on Earth?Bolt is the current world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter races and a seven-time gold medalist (he could win two more this week).


Or, perhaps you would select swimmer Michael Phelps – the fastest man on Earth … in the water. Phelps concluded his Olympic career this week as the most decorated Olympian all-time with an astonishing 23 gold medals to go along with three silver and two bronze.


Or, you could cast your vote for Simone Biles – the incredibly talented 19-year-old American dynamo, whose nearly flawless execution of highly technical and difficult gymnastics routines has won her four gold medals already and universal recognition as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time.


Or you go a different direction and select beach volleyball superstar, Kerry Walsh Jennings. Walsh Jennings and teammate Misty May-Treanor have dominated the competition since 2004, winning gold medals at the last three summer games. They have been called “the greatest beach volleyball team of all time.”


Which athlete did you choose? On what criteria did you place the greatest value in making your decision? The number of medals won? Their overall athletic ability? Their longevity in their sport? The level of separation between the achievement of your athlete and their nearest Olympic competitors?

Despite the very different nature of the events in which they compete,  I think you could make a strong argument for any of these four athletes as the greatest of the modern era. You might even have other athletes in mind you think are superior to this group.

What is not in dispute is that each of them is a spectacular athlete with unparalleled success in their respective sports. They are truly among the best ever.

Now, as a fun thought experiment, let’s do a little switcharoo.

What if Bolt and Phelps changed places in the next Olympics? Imagine Michael on the same track as the other top sprinters competing in the 200-meter race? Can you see Bolt swimming next to the world’s best in the 100-meter butterfly?

How about the 4’8″ Biles pairing up with Misty May-Trainer in the finals of the beach volleyball competition? How do you think the 6’2″ Kerry Walsh Jennings would do performing back flips on the balance beam?

While these events might be entertaining to watch, I would not expect these athletes to experience anywhere near the same level of success they had in their natural sport.

In other words, each of these Olympians possesses extraordinary mental toughness and is extremely well-trained and prepared in their sport. However, each is also blessed with a uniquely different set of physical attributes and talents that allow them to be the best in the world in that respective sport.

And that athletic ability does not neatly translate to all other athletic activities.

Even with years of specialized training, it is safe to say none of these four would even qualify for the Olympics in the sport I listed above.

So, my question is if we can acknowledge that human beings are born with unique physical skills and aptitude that make them particularly well-suited for some athletic events, and not others, why can we not accept that human beings also have special cognitive talents and strengths that make them better suited for some activities, and not others?

Since passage of NCLB in 2001, American schools have placed excessive focus on how students perform on specific assessments of academic skills. We have used children’s performance on these once-a-year tests to identify, rank, and sort students with and against each other.

We have told skilled young artists and musicians that they are not as valuable as other students because they scored lower on a math test. We have elevated certain teachers because they teach “important” subjects like math, science, and reading while devaluing the contribution of teachers of “less important” electives like the arts, music, drama, physical education, history, or computers.

What if the 2020 Summer Olympics decided to streamline the next games? Instead of the 306 events being competed in Rio, what if they reduced this to a more manageable number of, oh, let’s say … seven?

The seven events could be women’s parallel bars, the men’s marathon, synchronized swimming,  the decathlon, the modern pentathlon, weightlifting, and the 200-meter free-style swim. Just think of the money that would be saved by cutting the other 299 “unimportant” events. Plus, aren’t these the best seven events anyway?

I suspect most of you don’t like this simple plan. For that very reason – it’s too simple. It restricts our definition of athletic “talent” and skills to too few events. And it leaves too many athletes out.

We would never have experienced the joy of watching Usain Bolt accelerate down a track and celebrate a victory if these were the only events in which to compete.

I also think an Olympics with only seven events would be rather boring, just like an all-you-can-eat buffet with only seven items, or a high school with only seven classes.

For every event at the Olympics, there are athletes for whom the event is their entire world and the source of their personnel passion and inspiration.

Likewise, for every course offered in a high school, there are students for whom it represents the highlight of their academic day and the most important subject in their life. And is often something other than math or reading.

As I have said many times, I don’t believe the role of schools should be to take uniquely talented children and strip them of their individuality to fit them into our preconceived idea of intelligence, academic aptitude, or college- and career-readiness.

The true mission of education is to help each child identify and nurture their natural strengths, interests and passions and then work to hone those attributes into marketable skills.

This is inherently different for every child.

We have students in our schools who do not score well on standardized tests while simultaneously exhibiting incredible talents in art, music, athletics, technology, dance, communication skills, creativity, perseverance, character, compassion, charity, and so on.

Concurrently, we have students who can pass tests but are sorely lacking in some of these aforementioned attributes.

To say a student is not college- and career-ready because he or she cannot pass an Algebra test is like saying Michael Phelps is not an athlete because he cannot complete a gymnastics floor routine.

Our nation has always been strengthened by our diversity of talents, not by our uniformity.  Consequently, as much as we can, we should let the swimmers swim, the runners run, the gymnasts tumble, and the volleyballers jump, set, and spike.

Trying to standardize high school graduates diminishes the individual value each child brings to the world.

And we should stop doing it.

At their core, the Olympic games are a celebration of the wonderful diversity of human life. Education would be well-served to model this.