August 22, 2008

If Science was an Olympic Sport…

Olympic Rings by JL08A fictional scene from the future: The Olympic games, London 2012. A new candidate sport is on trial, joining skateboarding, rugby and golf at their debut Olympic games. It is challenging discipline called Science, a sport more ancient than Olympia itself. The crowd awaits eagerly in the all new Boris Johnson Olympic stadium. It has taken more than 2000 years just to convince the International Olympic Committee that Science is worthy of being an Olympic sport. The big day has finally arrived but the judges are still arguing about how to award the medals to scientists. Despite all the metrics involved, it’s all very very subjective. The games go ahead anyway, and there are lots of exciting new events:

  1. Triple-jump grant-writing A massive run-up, then a big hop, huge step, followed by a colossal jump. Longest triple-jump wins, not a medal, but often a large cash prize, which makes this event extremely popular (and very over-subscribed).
  2. Experiment wrestling and judo Contestants wrestle and fight with poorly understood but state-of-the-art technology in order to test hypotheses and perform experiments. Only the most determined contestants get results, the winner is the person with the most interesting discoveries.
  3. Impact factor boxing, a barbarically macho, gruesome and bloody event. Competing scientists try to publish their results in the journal with the highest impact factor but of dubious scientific value [1]. This event often has many casualties and opponents are often beaten until they are unconcious, fall over or even die. Publishers are often the main benefactors of this event, rather than scientists. Impact factor boxing is closely related to citation gymnastics where the scientist with the largest h-index wins.
  4. Invention javelin Contestants try to invent the sharpest new things at the cutting edge of science and technology. Best invention is judged to be the longest throw of the invention javelin.
  5. The 200m peer-review hurdles: contestants have to run as fast as they can clearing all the hurdles laid down by their peers and publishers. First to cross the finishing line wins the publication.
  6. The lonely long-distance marathon research run. Scientists develop expertise by running a single course for several years or even decades. Trainee scientists are recruited by running a special marathon called a PhD or DPhil. Any competitors left standing after the allotted time are given the title “Doctor”, for passing the gruelling initiation and endurance test.
  7. Presentation fencing. Contestants publicly present their work to other scientists and colleagues often using a blunt instrument called “PowerPoint”, opponents seek weak points in presentation using sharp instruments. Touché!
  8. Student shot put. Contestants throw cumbersome, heavy and almost inanimate objects (called “students”) as far as they can. The winner is the person who can throw a student the furthest.
  9. Weightlifting with citations Contestants write long review papers. The person who can cite the most papers in a single publication wins. Current world-record unknown but 2,184 references in a single paper is a pretty high score [2,3]. If you’ve ever written a scientific paper, what is your “personal best”?
  10. The multi-disciplinary decathlon professorship: a real test of a wide range of abilities, combining all of the above with another team event called laboratory football management, into a single contest. Winner is the Professor with the most points accumulated during the contest.

Will Olympic Science be entertaining to watch? Or just painful? Will anyone be able to agree on what constitutes international olympic-standard science, let alone a medal? Will America and China win all the medals or will smaller countries still claim glory? Tune in to the London 2012 Olympics to find out. In the meantime, enjoy what is left of the Beijing Olympics 2008.


  1. Joel L. Rosenbaum (2008). High-profile journals not worth the trouble. Science, 321(5892):1039b+ DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5892.1039b
  2. Douglas B. Kell (2008). Iron behaving badly: Inappropriate iron chelation as a major contributor to the aetiology of vascular and other progressive inflammatory and degenerative diseases, arXiv:0808.1371
  3. Zoë Corbyn (2008) New BBSRC chief ‘Olympic gold medallist’ of research, Times Higher Education, 2nd October 2008
  4. (A lightly edited version of this post appears in the American Physical Socity (APS) News: Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science, November 2008 issue, thanks to Jennifer Ouellette and Alan Chodos.)

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Olympic Rings by JL08]

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Brilliant, Duncan !!

    Gold Medal stuff…

    Comment by McDawg — August 22, 2008 @ 11:46 am | Reply

  2. Thanks Graham. I’m in training for Team GB (Science), but I’ve got a long way to go before they’ll even consider me for the team…

    Comment by Duncan — August 22, 2008 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

  3. You do make me laugh out loud, Duncan!
    These Olympic events are strikingly recognisable.
    Did that Douglas Kell paper *really* have that many references??

    Comment by Gemma — August 22, 2008 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  4. Hmm, 2184 references in the article of Douglas Kell.
    Do you think that he has read every single one of the papers?
    Would you not need several PhDs to read such amount of material?


    Comment by Manuel Corpas — August 22, 2008 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  5. @Gemma, hi, glad you liked it. The Kell paper really does have that many references, take a look! There is also some related commentary over at friendfeed, bayblab and Bora Zivkovic has picked up the story too, with a few new olympic suggestions added.

    @Manuel, hello! I doubt Doug has read all 2,184 papers from start-to-finish, perhaps we should ask him? Last time we spoke about it, he said they were all relevant to the subject matter. The paper itself is a bit of an experiment (and stunt) to prove that the reference limits imposed by journals are unnecessary and unhelpful.

    Comment by Duncan — August 22, 2008 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

  6. Of *course* I read all the wretched papers. Not cover-to-cover in all cases, but always the abstracts. It would be bonkers and anti-scientific not to, and if it was *just* a stunt I could have used a bot to grab citations or whatever and paste them in. Why not read the review? I took much of my spare time for a year.

    Comment by Douglas Kell — August 23, 2008 @ 7:24 am | Reply

  7. […] If Science was an Olympic Sport… (O’Really? at Duncan.Hull.name) […]

    Pingback by What’s on the web? (29 August 2008) « ScienceRoll — August 30, 2008 @ 5:50 am | Reply

  8. Interesting Blog there pal.

    Comment by Twins Fancy Gloves — June 4, 2009 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

  9. Just to update you, the Douglas Kell paper has now been published in BMC Medical Genomics (PMID:19133145), and after peer-review now contains 2469 references! http://www.biomedcentral.com/1755-8794/2/2

    Comment by Scott — October 6, 2009 @ 11:33 am | Reply

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