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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.