Why is academic performance under-acknowledged compared to athletic performance? In Japanese schools, at every assembly the principal announces awards and certificates for athletic meets. Academic awards are presented once, at the end of the year. Some exceptional students are given academic awards at graduation, alongside the students who had perfect attendance. In the US, you might have a graduation speech given by a valedictorian and salutatorian…and that's about it.
Unless you have the potential to be a professional athlete — one of a few tens of thousands of people out of hundreds of millions — high school, and just maybe college will be the last time you get any official recognition for athletics. It doesn't have any impact on the rest of your professional life. That might be one reason for acknowledging athletic performance when young.
But I think the main reason academic performance is not celebrated more is that most people aren't capable of appreciating excellence. Almost anyone can see when an athlete is performing better than others. In most Olympic events, performance is explicitly objective. If your time is faster, if the distance you cover is greater, you're the best. Most normal people can see and interpret performance of this type on their own. In team events and other scored performances, it's easy to tell who is winning and losing, and again it's usually easy for normal people to see which team or individual is performing better.
In academics, often only those who are capable of understanding the problem are capable of appreciating a good solution. Depending on the field of study, that might be a very small number of people. For example, I was classified as a “gifted” student in school. I consistently scored more than 2 standard deviations out from the norm on IQ tests, which means I'm in the top 1–2 percent of the population. And there are entire fields of study in academics that I don't understand. At all. There are far more things I am incapable of understanding than those I can comprehend.
So, if even smart people are incapable of appreciating excellence, what chance do “normal” people have? I think that's the core of the problem.
Academic achievement by children is often ignored because there aren't many people who can even assess that achievement. Unless you've got exceptionally bright teachers and administrators, the kid might be the smartest person in the room at an average school. Grades and tests are a way to attempt to measure performance, but, aside from continuing controversy over whether those tests actually measure any real intelligence, the fact is that we just don't give out awards for getting high scores on IQ tests, passing an AP exam, or skipping a grade. In fact, you're more likely to face opposition, frustration, and even criticism if you're smart than if you're average.
In the two cultures I'm familiar with — Japan and the US — acknowledgment of intelligence generally marks you for derision, not admiration. No one tries to beat up the fastest runner in school because he or she is too fast, but being obviously smart is enough to make someone a target for bullies who want to prove they're superior to them in at least one way. Ironically, this is true even if you're good at athletics, especially if you participate in the “wrong kind” of athletics, i.e. any non-team sport.
Academic achievement is held in slightly higher regard in Japan, but the acknowledgement is just as scanty as in the US. Compounding the lack of recognition is the fact that the classroom model of education is terrible for dealing with exceptional students. This is true for both countries. Classrooms are fairly bad even for “average” kids. Smart kids who succeed later in life often do so in spite of the education system, not because of it.
This is a particular problem in Japan where ｢出る釘は打たれる｣ (deru kugi ha utareru; “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”) is the rule. It's hard to learn to think when academic achievement equals memorizing and regurgitating information on tests, you are discouraged from asking questions, and conformity is paramount.