Imagine the Olympics, but only for college students. What matters is the country you represent and the sport you play, but also your college, major and any aspirations for the future. 

Also known as “Universiade,” a portmanteau of “University” and “Olympiad,” the University Games are a global multi-sport event. Just like the Olympics, they are held every two years, and alternate between summer and winter sports. Hosted in different cities, they span approximately two weeks and are broadcast to more than a hundred countries. Athletes stay on-site in a Village, sharing meals and practice times with other athletes. There are opening and closing ceremonies and of course —  rampant pin-trading. The ethos of the two sporting events are thus similar, celebrating culture and diversity as much as competition itself.

But there’s a difference in premise. The Olympics are the stuff of dreams —  they are the culmination of years of investment and the reason for blood, sweat and tears. Many athletes are professional, and every athlete is full time. Each journey to the Olympics is unique, but all involve sacrifice. Families watch the proceedings nervously with great hope. Countries watch excitedly with great expectation. Sponsors watch closely with great investment. The Olympics are about sports —  but also involve money and politics. 

At the Universiade, sports and education are equally important. Every athlete must also be a student —  so while the stakes are high, they aren’t the highest. Competition is less about breaking records and testing the bounds of human ability, and more so about celebrating student-athletes and the value of that hybrid identity. 

The 2023 Winter Universiade opened on Jan. 12 in Lake Placid, New York, last month and ran for 11 days. The mascot, a moose named Adirondack Mac, was designed by a student from the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Save Winter,” a campaign discussing the impact of climate change on winter sports, was the accompanying theme. 

I competed at the 2019 edition in Naples, Italy, where I represented my local community college in addition to the United States. I relished representing them both and loved the feeling of having my name attached to more than one entity. 

Of all the competitions I’ve been to, the University Games hold a special place in my heart. Partly because rhythmic gymnastics is a young sport, so it was meaningful to be among athletes my age. Partly because Naples was too small to accommodate us on land, so we were housed on a cruise ship. Partly because I went into it feeling prepared, so I competed well. 

But mostly it’s because every athlete competing had aspirations beyond their sport — other life paths and plans in mind. It was refreshing to meet a swimmer from Scotland who was also a burgeoning forensic psychologist. Or a diver from Argentina who was on track to become a nurse. Sports did not define entire livelihoods, so results were not life-or-death. Novelty thus surrounded me, in both the views of the sea and the views of my competitors. I felt a level of ease in my performance because I had gained a level of perspective on my results, which was otherwise hard to find in the typical elite athlete context. 

In general, I still believe in extreme dedication and the strength of singular commitment. I still believe true excellence requires full-fledged focus and some degree of sacrifice. But the nature of such rigor can be blinding and leave a person siloed in their understanding of worth. It is exciting to watch, compete and be a part of things that are extreme. But let’s face it —  it can also become mildly unhealthy. 

There is no doubt the Olympics have the drama and the glamor — and rightfully so. But the University Games are a little more grounded and have a little more fun. We may have slept on cardboard beds in Tokyo, but we stayed in cabin rooms in Naples —  and I think that deserves some recognition. 

In a world where we are encouraged to specialize, it was a breath of fresh air to meet athletes who took themselves seriously, but not unconditionally —  whose sense of self was bifurcated, and therefore less dependent on results. 

I urge everyone to watch the next edition of the University Games, if only because the stories of student-athletes are admirable. We should appreciate the nature of every competitor and the quality in their balance, because there’s power in being defined by more than one thing. 

Laura Zeng ’25 is writing a bi-monthly column, “Ask an Olympian,” on her opinions and life experiences. Send her questions at

Laura Zeng is a staff reporter covering arts and culture. Her column, “Ask an Olympian,” runs bi-monthly. Hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, she is interested in Architecture and the Humanities.