The Nude Olympics: 10 years after the ban
The last Nude Olympics was a violent affair held in January 1999, and the University banned the event that April. Now, 10 years after the last class-wide naked event held at Princeton, many students have only a vague notion of what was once an infamous tradition, reviled by the administration, beloved by many students and disdained by others.
Many point to the 1997-98 academic year, when the weather remained mild enough that no snow fell while school was in session, as a direct cause of the Olympics’ death. Since there was no snow, many of the sophomores who could not run that year resolved to run the next one.
Thus, it came as little surprise that Jan. 8, 1999, was a big day for the Holder courtyard. As the year’s first snow blanketed campus, roughly 350 naked students and 700 spectators piled into the quad.
At 11:40 p.m., Courtenay Green ’02 and Julia Beaver ’01 — the torchbearers — entered holding a stick carrying blazing T-shirts. The role of torchbearer was traditionally given to a freshman women’s squash player, but as Beaver missed out on running the previous year, she joined teammate Green in ushering in the night’s festivities.
To hear then-University Vice President and Secretary Thomas Wright ’62 tell it, what followed was mayhem. “The word went out [earlier in the day] that there was not sufficient staff to provide minimal protection and safety … and I was asked to go and try to fill in,” he explained in an interview last week. “That was the only time I ever attended, and I’ll tell you, I was scared stiff. I was just terrified. I had no idea how scary the thing was.”
“The courtyard was empty for this long, eerie time, while the noise got louder and louder from the rooms … Suddenly someone came out with a torch burning, and then people came pouring out of all the rooms, and the thing that was so noticeable was a few people tried to do some calisthenics and some exercises, but it was such a crazed atmosphere, there was so much screaming and yelling and racing around, you couldn’t really do that,” he said. “Pretty soon it became very, very similar to Pamplona’s running of the bulls.”
Wright described how some very large students — “I’m talking people over six feet, 200 pounds” — led the charge, skidding across the ice.
The night’s damages were significant. Seven students were taken to what was then the Princeton Medical Center, six for intoxication. Four more were taken to McCosh Health Center. One dean reported seeing one couple having sex outside, a spectator was arrested for allegedly harassing female students, and one student intervened upon noticing a group of men assaulting an unconscious female student in one of the dorm rooms.
At Princeton Medical Center, three non-University-affiliated emergency room patients had their care delayed because of the attention required by the intoxicated students. The hospital began turning further emergency admissions away to other area hospitals.
The end of a tradition
The saga of the Nude Olympics has a clear finish but a murky beginning. Most agree the tradition started in the mid-1970s, though neither administrators nor alumni ever reached an official consensus as to how it all began. Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee ’69 explained that in 1999 administrators spent time looking for the Olympics’ origins.
“There was lots of interest in trying to figure out where it had originated, and there were lots of different views,” he said. “There was streaking that was taking place even earlier than [the mid-’70s, and] I don’t think there is a definitive history about when the event began in the form it eventually took, which was relatively well-organized by students in the sophomore class.”
Durkee said that when he was an undergraduate, nothing like the Nude Olympics existed. At least, “not that I recall, except for the occasional streaker.”
Though the tradition eventually took hold, most years it did not cause nearly as much damage as it did in 1999. But the Olympics of that year were not the first to cause a significant stir. In February 1992, for example, two students were hospitalized after having been found unconscious and unresponsive, and one more fell from a third-story ledge. Students shattered a window at a restaurant, and 31 were videotaped and arrested by the police after running through town.
Upon hearing about the events of that night in 1999, though, then-President Harold Shapiro GS ’64 immediately began to speak out against the Olympics. “The reports of that evening sounded, to put it mildly, supremely distressing,” he told The Daily Princetonian that week. “I have the health and the safety of the students in mind. I think it’s not the rowdiness I have in mind. It’s the severe abuse of alcohol.”
To that end, he announced he would be asking then-Dean of Student Life Janina Montero to examine the future of the event. Montero, who is now the vice chancellor for student affairs at UCLA, became the head of a committee looking at how to find solutions to the problems posed by the Olympics.
The committee’s main recommendation — banning the event — was more or less a foregone conclusion, Montero said in an interview last week. “We had been reviewing the issue with students for years, and we had hit a tipping point where the trustees and the president had to say, ‘This can’t go on,’ ” she said. “We were very fortunate that we never had a death, for example, or a very serious injury. We were concerned about that every single year, and it was an untenable situation.”
To gather student input and to field the students’ questions, the USG and the freshman class held an open forum in McCosh 10. There, Montero reiterated that the committee’s main concern was a fear that they would have to wait for a student to die before the University took action.
The situation, which already caused a stir on campus, was complicated by significant attention from the national media. Each year, the Olympics was a reliable spectacle for the local news, but because of the lack of snow the year before and the severity of the repercussions to this one, the coverage in 1999 was more intense than usual.
“It was pretty difficult. It was my introduction to being president of the student body at Princeton; it was kind of a wake-up call,” then-USG President Spencer Merriweather ’00 explained last week in an interview. “My January and February consisted of me getting some press in The New York Times and getting a call from Reuters news service … Somehow I ended up being the quote of the week [somewhere] along with the president of NBC and the prime minister of Italy.”
Merriweather noted that many news outlets portrayed the event as a time for the nation’s future leaders to frolic drunkenly, which he said was a largely unfair characterization.
“I ran in the Nude Olympics. I had a good time,” he said. “Looking back, it’s one of those things that was a little crazy I did in college, and it was a lot of fun, but if you match that with the potential we saw for how bad things could get, it was kind of ridiculous.”
Indeed, the reports dominating the press were those with particularly incriminating quotes and suggestions. The Associated Press, for one, quoted Anna Levy-Warren ’01 as saying she had seen “someone getting peed on, a couple having sex, a guy masturbating, and girls just falling on their faces.”
Wary of the repercussions of this public image, Montero’s committee had a clear mission: Stop the Olympics from occurring again. The committee finished its review at the end of March, and Shapiro almost immediately endorsed the proposal, which called for a one-year suspension of any future participant. In April 1999, the Board of Trustees — which was in the midst of examining alcohol abuse on campus at the time — voted to end the Nude Olympics for good.
Merriweather said that when the committee first met, it was clear to him that what some students had found amusing was not seen the same way across campus. “A lot of the deans and professors said, ‘I didn’t go to college in order to get a Ph.D. in order to [check on] a bunch of naked sophomores,’ ” he explained.
As one of the few students on the committee, “I was definitely there to represent the students, but everybody on the committee was there wholly to represent the best interests of the University, and nine times out of 10, those things are one and the same,” he said.
The committee’s final report noted that, even without alcohol, the event would not be safe to continue. “It is the combination of alcohol, the mob behavior, the nudity, the wet and cold, the slippery and icy conditions that constitute the problem, and … even if alcohol could be completely removed from the event — a very unlikely possibility — the potential for sexual abuse, injury, the demeaning treatment of staff and institutional liability would persist,” the report said.
Resigned to his class’ inability to participate in the Olympics, Class of 2002 president Ben Shopsin tried to take Montero and the committee up on their offer to allow a replacement event. Every idea Shopsin and the class government put forth was shot down, however, until they hit upon the idea of burning Montero in effigy.
The plan was approved, but more than 100 members of the class e-mailed Shopsin their personal disapproval in the following days, shuttering that project. Ultimately, the class government and administration could not agree on an event, and the same fate befell the Class of 2003.
Around that time, some students were adamant that the Olympics were an integral part of the Princeton experience. Many said they would not accept the trustees’ decision without a fight.
After 1998’s snowless winter, a group of sophomores resolved to try a naked run anyway. One anonymous sophomore told the ‘Prince’ in May that he or she was doing the run on principle. “We lost Cane Spree, we had dry Bicker, [and] we didn’t steal the clapper. I didn’t want to be the only class who didn’t do Nude Olympics,” the sophomore said.
Al Walling ’00, an outspoken advocate of the Olympics, said he intended to run even after it was banned. “Since I’ve been here, Wednesday nights have been taken away, Bicker’s gone dry, and now you want to take away my Nude Olympics,” he said in March 1999. “I’m going to run next year, so you better tell Public Safety to lay off the doughnuts, because they’re going to have to catch me.”
Less then one month later, he told the ‘Prince’ that he thought banning the Olympics was part of a larger Nassau Hall plan for student life. “I think they’re just overreacting. They’re not going to be happy until we’re all sitting in the Frist Campus Center drinking mineral water,” he said. “Why don’t they just use tasers to catch us? That would show us. ‘Take that, drunk, naked guy.’ ”
But 10 years later, the Olympics is a distant memory, last witnessed by the long-gone members of the Class of 2002, deterred from running by the possibility of a one-year suspension.
Durkee, who was a member of the administration 10 years ago, summed the Olympics up as something to acknowledge but not to dwell on. “It was something that happened for a given time, it did become dangerous in its last years, and it’s a good thing it was put to an end,” he said. “Now it’s just part of our history, and I think that’s the end of the story.”
Merriweather, though, said he was not opposed to the idea of a class-wide event with a little bit of edge to it, but he added that he was glad the banning process turned out how it did.
“There is a part of me that wishes that there were an outlet for students to have a way of expressing themselves in a fun yet rebellious way,” Merriweather said. “But no one goes to college to get raped, and no one goes to Princeton to die of alcohol poisoning. And at the end of the day, if those things happen just a little less, we’re all certainly the better for it.”