Academia is Just Like the Olympics

I’ve been inspired by the amazing athletes at the Tokyo 2020 (actually, 2021) Olympic games. They are truly a spectacle to behold and one can’t help but be impressed. As I watch all the running, jumping, and twisting, I am reminded that academia is like the Olympics in more ways than just one. Let me show you what I mean.

We have medals, too. But instead of winning gold, silver, or bronze, elite academics win the Nobel prize or the Fields medal, the latter of which, like the Olympics, is only awarded every four years. There is one key difference, however. Unlike Olympic gold medal winners, Nobel prize recipients don’t end up on the front of cereal boxes.

We cheat our way to the podium, too. The performance-enhancing drugs scandal has rocked most Olympic games in recent memory. An “unbelievable” feat of human athleticism sometimes turns out to be unbelievable for good reason: the athlete was doping. If you think this isn’t a serious problem, just ask the Russian Olympic Committee. Unfortunately, academics cheat, too. Some fabricate data. Some employ questionable research practices. Some steal others’ ideas. And just like in the Olympics, some get caught, but others don’t.

We work all the time, too. I say this as mostly hyperbole, but because we have a “thinking” job, we probably work more hours than we (and others) think. Some academics literally do work all the time. They remind me a bit of the Chinese Olympic athletes. The Chinese state runs human factories in which young children are targeted and developed into machines. They spend virtually every waking hour of their lives on the sport (unlike Western athletes, many of whom are university students and have social lives . . . from this point of view, it’s incredible that the rest of the world can compete with Chinese athletes!). In a similar vein, all academics work hard, but some harder than others.

We have our own status hierarchies, too. Just like it is “cooler” to win gold in the 100-meter sprint than in ping pong, it is also “cooler” to be a top physicist than a top human resource management researcher. Yes, I just admitted that my field of study is the ping pong of academia. So what? Have you seen Forrest Gump?

Yes, I just admitted that my field of study is the ping pong of academia. So what? Have you seen Forrest Gump?

We suffer from the weight of expectations and mental illness, too. Just like Olympic athletes such as Simone Biles get crushed by the impossible standards to which she is “supposed” to live up to, many academics fall victim to impossible standards as well. An elite athlete’s successes and failures are transparent and for all to see. It’s the same with academics. Just go to our webpages and you can see our publication record in black and white. Sometimes, the weight of expectations is too much, and many academics collapse under the pressure.

We are mostly ignored by the public, too. Most gold medal winners enjoy their minute of fame every four years. Between Olympic games, few really care what they achieve. It’s similar for academics. Every once in a blue moon the public recognizes our greatness, but for the most part we labor in relative obscurity.

Maybe this is why academics are so drawn to the Olympics. We can see our own hopes, dreams, failures, and disappointments reflected in the greatest sporting competition of all time.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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