Putting the UN in Fun

Since 1979, the colleges of UC San Diego have come together for an afternoon of sun-drenched silliness and well-rehearsed spectacle. The event may be only a couple of hours long, but students spend weeks plotting and planning and practicing, all in the hopes of being the next keeper of what was once someone’s worn-out and ragged old gym shoe.

It may sound strange to some, but if you’re a Triton, you know.

This is the UnOlympics.

The decades-old tradition has always been tied to Welcome Week—a time for freshmen to get to know their new home and grow accustomed to college life. In 1979, Scott Berndes, then-director of UC San Diego Sports and Recreation, thought some friendly competition would be a good way to foster school spirit, as well as show students there was fun to be had on a campus known for world-class academics.

The first UnOlympics began with your standard outdoor festivities: lawn games like an egg toss, tug-of-war, water balloon relay and sack races, as well as classic carnival fare in the form of a pie-eating contest. They were the kind of games that required no practice, no stress and only the promise of a good time—the exact opposite of actual Olympic events. This wasn’t the only reason for the “Un,” however; it was allegedly inspired by a popular television commercial of the time, one known to those who might remember 7-Up as the “UnCola.”

Unolympics competition (2016)
Unolympics competition (2016)

“The UnOlympics evolved quite a bit,” says Liora Kian-Gutierrez ’84, who has spent her entire career involved with UC San Diego students in one way or another. She recalls how UnOlympic hijinks escalated as each college tried to one-up the others every year—especially in their entrances to the games. Students made use of everything they could, as what started with decorated golf carts gave way to a parade of zoo animals, even military skydivers once accompanying Muir College’s entrance in 1988.

“We drew the line at pyrotechnics—that idea was shut down fast,” says Kian-Gutierrez. “And even outrageous things like the skydivers—that didn’t do very well with the judges anyway, because what does a stunt like that really say about the college, or school spirit? That’s what the event is all about.”

Unolympics competition at UC San Diego (2009)
Unolympics at UC San Diego (2009)

These grand entrances evolved into well-defined themes, many of which corresponded with the pop culture of the day, reflecting hit movies like Top Gun and Ghostbusters, or timeless references like The Wizard of Oz and Pirates of the Caribbean. Over the decades the themes morphed into what has now become the event’s climax and closing attraction: well-rehearsed, large-scale performances. Scores of students from each college put together a choreographed dance, with skits, lip-sync and who-knows-what else—this is where the school spirit truly shines.

Unolympics Scoreboard (2018)
Unolympics Scoreboard (2018)

“When they’re developing their performance, we make a point to tell our students it’d be nice to include something special about each of the other colleges,” says Kian-Gutierrez. “I think colleges are great about letting the students know it’s not about winning, it’s about supporting each other because we’re all Tritons. You can see it in spectators now—the audience is as big as those competing. And whether they realize it, they’re participating as well.”

Unolympics competition (2010)
Unolympics competition (2010)

Be it in the stands or on the field, the games have done their job for decades in bringing Tritons together. “The UnOlympics is the first step in building up relationships for students. If they can engage with each other in a way that’s safe, a way that has meaning and where they can be active and creative with other people, then they’ll feel more comfortable to venture out and really find their niche while they’re here, whether in activities or college programs or clubs. It’s one of the first things you do a Triton, and after 40 years—it may be silly, but it’s something that really binds us together.”


What’s your UnOlympic story? What skit, game or other kind of craziness will you remember forever? Let us know at tritonmag@ucsd.edu