At the opening ceremony for Snagajob’s annual Office Olympics, representatives of different nations cheerfully parade through the event grounds (a parking lot) in colorful costumes (T-shirts, mostly) and wow spectators with (loosely) choreographed dances designed to rally enthusiasm for the contests of skill and shamelessness that will follow. This year, Egypt’s team dressed as mummies. Belize showed up in grass skirts and inner tubes. North Korea wore drab, military-style outfits and marched obediently in perfect formation. Ireland? They made a memorable entrance with live sheep. “We also dressed in IRA garb and carried rifles,” says Greg Moyer, chief people officer at Snagajob, a Richmond (Va.)-based hiring company. “And of course we had to do a little drinking.”
Snagajob’s Olympics feature neither athletes nor citizens of the countries they have decided to represent. The games they play during the tournament—trashcan basketball, desk-chair soccer, and paper-ball curling—are significantly easier and look like much more fun. “We try to get people who don’t work together on the same team,” says Moyer. “It’s a way for Snagajob to improve relationships and communication.” Besides, company morale improves whenever employees are allowed to throw office supplies.
A number of Olympics-themed competitions have cropped up this year, as employers capitalize on the excitement surrounding the 2012 London Games—or, quite possibly, pay homage to the 1983 film Mr. Mom and the U.S. version of The Office, both of which feature Office Olympics plotlines. In Britain several corporate event planners have started offering Olympics-themed packages. And in the U.S., everyone from software companies to product-development firms has hosted multi-sport tournaments in which winners are awarded fake medals at the end.
“The Olympics idea came from a couple of our employees,” says Chris Massot, vice president of sales at Synapse, a 200-person product-development company that has offices in Seattle, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. “We hold a lot of fun events here—probably one every couple of weeks—and we wanted to do one that tapped into the buzz around the real Olympics as they’re going on.”
Synapse plans to launch its competition on Aug. 2. The schedule has yet to be finalized, but so far there are plans for synchronized wall climbing, beer-bottle relay, and Nerf gun contests. Employees will be able to watch the London Games on the company’s big-screen TVs. And there will be a closing ceremony, tentatively scheduled to take place during the real closing ceremony, with prizes awarded to the winners. Massot doesn’t yet know what the prizes will be. “We formed an Olympic Committee to figure all this stuff out,” he says.
Office Olympics are wackier, themed versions of more traditional corporate athletic contests. The largest and best known of these is the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge, which began in 1977 when 200 employees from 50 companies ran 3.5 kilometers through New York City’s Central Park. Last year 23,000 people participated in 13 cities around the world. And for the past eight years the global investment firm Bridgewater Associates has hosted an annual scrum, in which about 100 employees race around a lake that surrounds one of its Connecticut office buildings. “It’s not very long, but it’s really intense,” says Parag Shah, a senior management associate who competed in the first two scrums.
Office Olympics tend to be much more lighthearted and significantly less competitive. “One of our events was beer pong,” says Seth Besmertnik, chief executive officer of Conductor, a 65-person software company in New York City. Conductor’s lack of real sports at its Office Olympics is mostly due to the limitations of its location. Based in Manhattan, Conductor has no outdoor space. So when Besmertnik threw his employees an Office Olympics as a reward for hitting a revenue goal last February, he decided that his best option was a local billiards club. Teams played pool, billiards, and dice games, and managed to fit in one real Olympic sport: Ping-Pong.
For British companies, the problem isn’t lack of space—it’s climate. London event-planning company Inneventive debuted an Office Olympics-themed party this year, assuming that companies would consider it a way to celebrate Britain’s role as host country. “But we’ve had the most hideous summer, tons of rain, and it hasn’t been very popular. A couple of clients have ducked out of events because they didn’t want to get soaking wet,” says Phillipa Whitney, Inneventive’s director. Whitney’s company doesn’t offer an indoor version of its Olympics.
“Great Britain’s weather is rubbish. You have to have an indoor version of everything,” says Simon Mugglestone, the founder of Phoenix Leisure Events, an event-planning company based in Devon. Mugglestone has offered an Office Olympics program for the past six years and says his indoor version is much more popular than the outdoor. Phoenix Leisure has seen a slight uptick in Olympics-themed events this year, “but the big boost has been with companies who are ordering up individual sports that we offer, like archery and clay pigeon shooting, and organizing an Olympics tournament themselves.”
Mugglestone and Whitney might not be offering their Olympic packages for long; the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has cracked down on unlicensed use of the term “Olympic” in Britain. “We would advise companies which are not London 2012 sponsors against using it for any programmes that they run, internal or external,” a spokesman for the LOCOG wrote in an e-mail. In America, the U.S. Olympic Committee has recently asked the online knitting group Ravelry to rename its Ravelympics, in which more than 7,500 people are set to knit, crochet, or sew during the London Games.
This was the third year that Snagajob has hosted its Office Olympics. The events took place during the middle of the workday and lasted for one week. The company added a couple of new events to its roster—a hot-dog-eating competition and a staring contest—but Moyer says the most popular sport remains the desk-chair soccer tournament. It’s a regular game of soccer, except that all of the players are seated in swivel chairs. “Everyone comes out to watch as different teams—sorry, countries—are eliminated over several days,” he says. “It’s a rough-and-tumble game. Chairs overturn, people get very competitive.”
Despite their best efforts and their spirited costumes, North Korea and Ireland failed to win the most events this year. That honor went to another country, one that wasn’t expected to win any medals at all. “They kind of surprised us, actually,” says Moyer. “We didn’t have high hopes for them. I mean, they’re Canada.”