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Why are the Olympics held every four years?

The tradition goes back to the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece

ATLANTA — We’ve waited five years for the Tokyo Olympics, an unusual break from the tradition of holding the Summer Olympics every four years.

War canceled three Olympics. A shift in scheduling placed two Winter Olympic Games only two years apart. 

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed the 2020 Games in Tokyo until this year. Other than that, the tradition of holding the games every four years has held.

It’s the place where ancient history meets modern times.

The tradition has its roots in the Ancient Games that began in Greece.

Historians believe the very first Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C. They were part of a series of athletic competitions called the Panhellenic Games held to honor different Greek gods.

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Some took place every two years, some every four years.

The Olympic Games held in Olympia, Greece to honor Zeus became the most important. Eventually, the ancient Greeks began to call a four-year period of time an “Olympiad.”

“Time was counted not in years, but Olympiads which was every four years,” said Michelle Dusserre-Farrell of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum.

The Ancient Olympic Games ended during the 4th century.

In the late 1800s, a French historian named Pierre de Coubertin helped kickstart the modern Olympic Games. Sticking with a tradition started centuries before, the modern games were scheduled once an Olympiad, or once every four years.

“So that tradition has maintained,” said Dusserre-Farrell. “However, the timing of those Olympiads are staggered between winter and summer.”

The Winter and Summer Games were once held during the same year. The International Olympic Committee decided to stagger them after the 1992 games, leading to the one time the Winter Games were held two years apart. They’re back to being held every four years.

War and a pandemic have caused disruptions, but there’s no plan to permanently change the tradition of holding the Summer Olympics once every four years.