Posted by: barn owl | August 9, 2008

China Month 1. Unabashed Olympics Geek

For the remainder of August, I’ll be writing posts related to China: Chinese science, Chinese environmental issues, Chinese wildlife, and, of course, the Beijing Olympics. This first post will be a Scientiae entry for the upcoming theme, “My summer vacation”, hosted at Lab Cat’s excellent blog. The timing and the theme tie in well with the Beijing Olympics, as sports have always been an important part of my life as a woman and a scientist, and watching the Summer Olympics has always constituted a sort of vacation for me. Obsessive Olympics-viewing, online discussion, and results-scanning are an especially welcome break in the evenings, as the major courses for first-year medical and dental students, and thus my most intense teaching responsibilities, begin in late July, and are in full swing by mid-August. I can happily knit or crochet while I’m watching the athletes, and thereby also feel somewhat productive.

I am most definitely not one of those academicians who claims that sports are a distraction from “the life of the mind” (whatever the hell that means), or who boasts about disinterest in, or complete ignorance of, professional and amateur sports. Nope. I *love* sports-as a participant, and as a spectator. Always have, and probably always will. And I’ve received vocal criticism about my athletic pursuits and interests sporadically, ever since I had the unmitigated gall to play City League soccer, starting my first summer in grad school. As an undergrad, I’d played every intramural sport available, as well as university soccer, and I just assumed that I could continue playing soccer several times a week, without becoming a target for dismissive comments. Wrong. Since those days, I have cycled through mentors and colleagues with varying opinions on sports: postdoc mentor #1 = against, postdoc mentor #2 = for, department chair #1 = vehemently against, and so on. Even the science blogosphere seems divided on the issue, with some bloggers as avid participants and fans, and others who consider sports a waste of time and energy, or who are just disinterested.

Why do I find the Olympics so intriguing? I don’t know any Olympic-level athletes personally (unless you count Special Olympics, for which I’ve been a coach and mentor), no one in my family is an Olympian, and my own sports prowess is certainly several levels below Olympian. When i was a child, I loved seeing all the flags and uniforms from different countries, and hearing about all the athletes from exotic faraway places. Even their names were fascinating-what were their lives like? I still love the diversity of experience and talent that characterizes the Olympics, and since I have friends and colleagues from many different countries, I often find myself rooting for the Australian swimmers, or the Spanish cyclist, or the Japanese gymnast. The Olympic events make a lovely discussion point for friends separated by oceans, but connected by the internet. Grad school swimming buddies, college soccer teammates, current fellow equestrians-we’ll have a lot to discuss, either online or in person.


I don’t believe that I’m somehow superior to others because of my interest and participation in sports, though I can think of at least a dozen scientists and physicians who maintain that attitude, particularly as a means to berate others who are overweight or deemed insufficiently physically fit. On the other hand, among academicians, I’ve always thought that there were several double standards associated with sports participation and spectatorship. The first, and most egregious, IMO, is that scientists should always be doing something scientific, when not asleep. Reading journal articles, doing experiments, writing papers and grant proposals. This double standard is a favorite to apply to scientists who are single and/or childless, especially (though not exclusively) if the scientist is female. If you’re in a heteronormative marriage or relationship, and have children, you seem to receive a generous allotment of non-science time, free of inquiry and judgment-you know, to deal with those kids that you and your spouse adopted from squalid refugee camps chose to have. I’m perfectly happy to adjust my schedule to help out a colleague who needs to pick up kids from daycare or whatever, but I draw the line at accepting unsolicited opinions or critiques on how I should spend my time away from work.

And this brings me to the second big double standard, which is perhaps a GenX offshoot of the first, Boomer-associated double standard: some non-science pursuits are more acceptable than others. One of the characteristics of GenX, of which I’m an older member, is a more balanced approach to career and life than was favored by the workaholic Boomer generation. However, some of the weird judgments about acceptable modes of balance remain. For example, almost any form of dinking around on a computer is acceptable, whereas most outdoor and physical activities (away from computers) are not. The computer game enthusiast looks good, whereas the amateur soccer player, not so much, because he or she is not parked in front of a computer. Obsessions with electronics and geek gadgets are acceptable, but obsessions with natural fiber yarns and other craft supplies are not. I’ve pretty much given up trying to understand this double standard, and I don’t think there’s a rational explanation. It may be peculiar to academia, but nevertheless, it is nonsensical.

So I’m excited about watching many of the events, especially swimming, equestrian, cycling, volleyball, and track and field, and even more excited about discussing the Olympics with friends. I’ll record the events that I’ll miss while at the lab bench or teaching, and perhaps watch a few events online while I’m eating my sandwich at lunch. Watching, discussing, and reading about the Beijing Olympics will be my 2008 summer vacation, and the athletes will inspire me to get out and participate in sports even more than I already do. If Dara Torres can qualify for the Olympics at 41, surely I can muster the energy and dedication to work out with the local Masters swim team.



  1. […] barn owl wrote an interesting post today on China Month 1. Unabashed Olympics Geek. Here’s a quick excerpt: […]

  2. This was really interesting to read! I think it’s interesting how the “acceptable hobbies” vary by field, as well. In physics it was definitely acceptable to spend a lot of time drinking (although this often involved work and the coveted nobel-prize-idea-on-a-bar-napkin). When I went into environmental science, I expected to be surrounded by other “granola” types (as in, green living, DIY types), but instead I found myself surrounded by extreme outdoors and sports types. This makes sense, in retrospect, but as a non-sporty person, it has made it hard to socialize (or even, sometimes, to find something to chat about at coffee breaks). Fiber pursuits seem to be universally frowned upon, especially in Switzerland where they evoke actual gasps of disbelief.

  3. […] Owl, at Gaudalope Storm-Petrel, reports on her excitement for the Olympics and for sports in general.  Sadly her colleagues and advisors […]

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