If you haven’t noticed, it’s Olympiad season. I’m not especially sporty myself – I quite like sports but just in a “lazily half-arsing them in a park on a Sunday” kind of way and not “watch them and wave tiny coloured flags while wearing very expensive branded shirts”.

But right now, avoiding sport is a sport in itself. Every newspaper and news website has it as its headlines, and even our student union has replaced some questionable wall decoration with a big projection of the Olympics live – made me feel quite guilty about the cheeseburger I was eating.

Watching it did make me think that I really don’t feel what I do is well represented by the Olympics. There is running, shooting and splashing around but very little University admin – which I very much believe is a sport unto itself.

Now, I don’t think we’re going to persuade the IOC to recognise the sporting efforts of academics anywhere. At least not without a bribe several times larger than the average government grant.

So instead I have decided to launch the Academic Olympics.

It will be held every 4 years and cover some of the most channelling aspects of academic life. I propose starting with 8 core events:

Speed papersSprint paper writing

The contestants sit at committee-approved tables and, using only their laptops, have to write as many papers as possible in 3 hours. Obviously, quantity is valued over quality so only the number of papers is counted. In order to add realism, every paper must also follow a different style guide and a totally different reference scheme.

Redundant equipment throwRedundant equipment throw

Disposing of redundant equipment is a constant problem in academia. In this event, the researcher must throw a piece of equipment as far as possible out of a two-storey window. This event needs careful planning as contestants can be disqualified if the judges recognise who threw it out of the window. This is to mirror the real world risk of someone discovering who dumped the equipment and then making you fill out the correct disposal forms.

Post doc relay racePost-Doc project relay race

Unlike the other events, this can take many weeks to complete. The event starts with the team’s post-Doc running a short 400m stretch. They then put down the baton and the lab team must then advertise for a new post-Doc to start and run for another 400m – before also being replaced. Post-Docs in the event are encouraged to apply to other teams after their 400m but only after they have run the race and are sitting on the side lines with nothing to do, surviving on food and drink thrown by the spectators.

TriathalonTriathlon: paper, grant and student supervision

The triathlon is a real slog of an event. Competitors have to train to their very limits and have even been known to wear performance-enhancing nanotechnology tweed to help with this event. At the sound of the starting gun, academics must complete three events in quick succession. First, they sit and furiously type away, preparing a full academic paper and getting it published in a journal listed in Web of Science. Journals the competitors have setup themselves and are the editor of, are frowned upon but not outright banned. Next, they have to switch gears and write a grant. This is a tricky event because it is very dependant on the calls given to the competitors on the day, so being a flexible researcher, able to write a grant on the mating habits of lemurs one day and the photocatalysis of ammonia with nanoparticles the next, is a key skill. Finally, they have to supervise a student. Much like in real academia, the student is one they have never seen before and will have no prior knowledge of the project. Providing the student leaves their office not crying, the academic can then stop the clock.

Lecture twin eventEndurance lecture: twin event

Competitors stand in a slightly too warm lecture theatre with a faulty computer and a projector that won’t show green. They then have to give a lecture on their chosen subject for 22.5 hours. Points are deducted every time they say “err” or “umm”. This is a dual event and the only event to which students can apply – for the position of ‘audience’. Audience competitors are judged on their ability to stay awake and not yawn.

TenureTenure race

This is the main event of the Academic Olympics – only the best apply to this one. The race itself is in fact never actually shown to spectators or even the contestants. They are encouraged to just ‘compete’ as much as possible until one is declared the winner. This race is only run by Americans – who both win and loose it.

Syncronised Health and safteySynchronised Health and Safety

Health and Safety is very important to academics, and more importantly the legal teams of the universities they work for. But one key element to health and safety is duplication and redundancy. Academic competitors prepare routines in advance, where they create all the health and safety documentation for a simple lab procedure – this must then be replicated in perfect duplication. Any deviation will result in points lost, and extra points are awarded for the volume of health and safety forms generated. There is an instant disqualification for any competitor found to be preparing health and safety documentation for a procedure with actual tangible risk.


Academics are fuelled by coffee. Vast quantities of coffee. An academic’s ability to survive otherwise toxic levels of caffeine is a sign of a hardened well-trained academic. To test this, each competitor is given a small kiddie pool of freshly brewed coffee. They then drink as much as they can before demonstrating that they can run a simple titration.

Now the above sports are really just the beginning, I’ve not even talked about others we could introduce – like centrifuge dressage and pipette tips racking. If you have any other ideas, please add them in the comments below and the first Committee of the Academic Olympics will take them into consideration.

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Jeremy Slack · 17 August 2016 at 20:29

Data Recovery! Spend five years building a data-set and then lose it and recreate it within 24 hours.

    Dennis Noson · 20 August 2016 at 06:52

    Hey! I did just that 10 years ago, studying singer responses to simulated acoustics. Data recovery took longer, though, about 5 days, and required an I.T. son-in-law to assist. Sort of like rowing’s two-without-coxswain.

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 22 August 2016 at 13:19

    Yes and you are only allowed the small collection of post it notes you use for scrap on your desk to recreate it.

Marìa · 17 August 2016 at 20:48

apparently no coffee at Rio Olympic Village only official Coke products …. 🙁

Marìa · 17 August 2016 at 20:50

apparently no coffee in Rio Olympic village! only official coke products …

Phil · 17 August 2016 at 21:19

Evading complaints as annoying as possible. Here also students can apply as complainants.
The task is to strike down complaints by students without slightly giving a shit about what they initially complained about. Every complaint should be ignored in the beginning and only answered when legal steps are announced. At this stage points can be earned for answering as short and unfulfilling as possible. Reasoning based on facts and good arguments make the academic lose points.

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 22 August 2016 at 13:20

    This seems like an event that should only be held via letters sent out every 2-4 months.

Jill · 17 August 2016 at 22:12

PhD supervisor meeting. To get qualified for this event each competitor needs to schedule a meeting with their supervisor and have at least a 30 min conversation at the scheduled date and time. Any competitors getting rescheduled will be disqualified. The competitor who comes out of the meeting the least confused and with the most constructive feedback wins. Bonus points are given when the supervisor indicates that the meeting was useful and not a waste of his/her time. An alternative and more difficult version of this sport is the supervisor meeting with more than one supervisor, although the confusion scores are mostly much higher at this version.

ScienceofSofia · 18 August 2016 at 00:37

Conference Presentation.

Several different categories for this event (plenary, oral, poster) and it is a spectacle to behold. Competitors must only start preparing their PowerPoint presentation 10 hours before they are presenting, and they must either be jet lagged or severely sleep deprived when they commence. The judges should all speak a different first language to the competitor, however all presentations must be in English. Before presenting, competitors must consume 1L of coffee, then when presenting, must use a laser pointer that intermittently does not work. Competitors will be forced to answer questions after their presentation with absolutely no relevance to what they presented, and most of their score will be awarded for how they answer these irrelevant questions. A small part of the score will be awarded for the actual content of the presentation.

oOorly · 18 August 2016 at 03:30

Tenure track and field: Aspiring academics need to compete a grant committee hurdles race (points deducted for tripping over obstacles but given back if dragging said obstacles to the finish line); a long jump over administration duties; and finally a 10,000 m all-out heart-thumping lungs-burning stomach-churning sprint to the finish line.

The finish line can be arbitrarily moved by any member of the IAOC and/or spectators at any time in the event. The winner is decided on overall “potential” and usually did their PhD with the judges.

Tony · 18 August 2016 at 03:45

The three minute thesis
Seemingly the only event in common practice!

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 22 August 2016 at 13:22

    Three minute thesis isn’t an event, it’s just the average length of time anybody but you cares about your thesis 😉

Katy Colbert · 18 August 2016 at 11:35

The science vs. humanities/arts tug of war. In which academics argue over which is the more complex to teach. Rules to be determined as this has just come into my head.

Stranger · 18 August 2016 at 13:44

Artistic Enthusiasm Preservation
Only students who want to teach at the academia (and professors who would like to attain a higher position) can compete.
The event consists of pulling off three all-nighters in a row writing papers, sending said papers to journals and writing applications to academic positions. In day 4, the student will be dropped off at a random faculty of their field, and will have to find and convince as many professors hiding in the building of their potential as they can. Overall scores will be calculated from the points given by the professors found for the quality of papers (even though it is their choice whether they actually read them or not), how much they liked the journal it was published in, and the percieved enthusiasm of the candidate. Points are also rewarded for not crying.

Dr. B · 19 August 2016 at 16:32

Department meeting endurance: competitors will be subjected to assessment data transmitted only through acronyms, worn tirades, training videos, budget figures, and policy reviews. Nothing will be accomplished. Competitors will be judged by demeanor in endurance: least yawns, eye rolling, or naps wins.

Cindy · 21 August 2016 at 20:58

Excellent work! Can you create events geared toward academics in secondary education, too? 😀

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 22 August 2016 at 13:22

    I’ll speak to my friend in secondary education and see if I can sort something 😉

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