Stadium at ancient Olympia.
Stadium at ancient Olympia.

An Olympiad (Greek: Ὀλυμπιάς, Olympiás) is a period of four years associated with the Olympic Games of the Ancient Greeks.

Although the Ancient Olympic Games were established during Archaic Greece, it was not until the Hellenistic period, beginning with Ephorus, that the Olympiad was used as a calendar epoch. Converting to the modern BC/AD dating system, the first Olympiad began in the summer of 776 BC and lasted until the summer of 772 BC, when the second Olympiad would begin with the commencement of the next games.

Thus, for N less than 195, Olympiad N started in the year BC and ended four years later. For N greater than or equal to 195, Olympiad N started in AD and ended four years later. By extrapolation, the 1st year of the 700th Olympiad began roughly around 2 August, 2021.

A modern Olympiad refers to a four-year period beginning January 1 of the year the Olympic Summer Games are normally held. Thus, the first modern Olympiad began January 1, 1896, the second January 1, 1900, and so on (the 32nd began January 1, 2020: see the Olympic Charter).

Allowing for the absence of a year zero between the Olympiad of 4 BC and the one of 4 AD – since the Julian calendar goes directly from 1 BC to 1 AD – this means the ancient Olympic cycle is behind the modern Olympic cycle by one year.

Ancient Olympics

An ancient Olympiad was a period of four years grouped together, counting inclusively as the ancients did. Each ancient Olympic year overlapped onto two of our modern reckoning of BC or AD years, from midsummer to midsummer. Example: Olympiad 140, 1st year = 220/219 BC; 2nd year = 219/218 BC; 3rd year = 218/217 BC; 4th year = 217/216 BC. Therefore, the games would have been held in July/August of 220 BC and held the next time in July/August of 216 BC, after four olympic years had been completed.


The sophist Hippias was the first writer to publish a list of victors of the Olympic Games, and by the time of Eratosthenes, it was generally agreed that the first Olympic games had happened during the summer of 776 BC.[1] The combination of victor lists and calculations from 776 BC onwards enabled Greek historians to use the Olympiads as a way of reckoning time that did not depend on the time reckonings of one of the city-states. (See Attic calendar.) The first to do so consistently was Timaeus of Tauromenium in the third century BC. Nevertheless, since for events of the early history of the games the reckoning was used in retrospect, some of the dates given by later historian for events before the 5th century BC are very unreliable.[2] In the 2nd century AD, Phlegon of Tralles summarised the events of each Olympiad in a book called Olympiads, and an extract from this has been preserved by the Byzantine writer Photius.[3] Christian chroniclers continued to use this Greek system of dating as a way of synchronising biblical events with Greek and Roman history. In the 3rd century AD, Sextus Julius Africanus compiled a list of Olympic victors up to 217 BC, and this list has been preserved in the Chronicle of Eusebius.[4]

Examples of Ancient Olympiad dates

A relief of the Greek Olympiad.
A relief of the Greek Olympiad.

Start of the Olympiad

An Olympiad started with the holding of the games, which occurred on the first or second full moon after the summer solstice, in what we call July or August. The games were therefore essentially a new years festival. In 776 BC this occurred on either July 23 or August 21. (After the introduction of the Metonic cycle about 432 BC, the start of the Olympic year was determined slightly differently).


Though the games were held without interruption, on more than one occasion they were held by others than the Eleians. The Eleians declared such games Anolympiads (non-Olympics), but it is assumed the winners were nevertheless recorded.

End of the era

During the 3rd century AD, records of the games are so scanty that historians are not certain whether after 261 they were still held every four years. During the early years of the Olympiad, any physical benefit[clarification needed] deriving from a sport[example needed] was banned. Some winners were recorded though, until the last Olympiad of 393AD. In 394, Roman Emperor Theodosius I outlawed the games at Olympia as pagan. Though it would have been possible to continue the reckoning by just counting four-year periods, by the middle of the 5th century AD reckoning by Olympiads had become disused.

Modern Olympics

Olympiad First
Host City Country
I (1st) 1896 1899 Athens Greece Greece
II (2nd) 1900 1903 Paris France France
III (3rd) 1904 1907 St. Louis United States United States
IV (4th) 1908 1911 London United Kingdom Great Britain
V (5th) 1912 1915 Stockholm Sweden Sweden
VI (6th) 1916 1919 Berlin Germany Germany[a]
VII (7th) 1920 1923 Antwerp Belgium Belgium
VIII (8th) 1924 1927 Paris France France
IX (9th) 1928 1931 Amsterdam Netherlands Netherlands
X (10th) 1932 1935 Los Angeles United States United States
XI (11th) 1936 1939 Berlin Germany Germany
XII (12th) 1940 1943 Tokyo
Japan Japan
Finland Finland
XIII (13th) 1944 1947 London United Kingdom Great Britain[b]
XIV (14th) 1948 1951 London United Kingdom Great Britain
XV (15th) 1952 1955 Helsinki Finland Finland
XVI (16th) 1956 1959 Melbourne Australia Australia
XVII (17th) 1960 1963 Rome Italy Italy
XVIII (18th) 1964 1967 Tokyo Japan Japan
XIX (19th) 1968 1971 Mexico City Mexico Mexico
XX (20th) 1972 1975 Munich West Germany West Germany
XXI (21st) 1976 1979 Montreal Canada Canada
XXII (22nd) 1980 1983 Moscow Soviet Union Soviet Union
XXIII (23rd) 1984 1987 Los Angeles United States United States
XXIV (24th) 1988 1991 Seoul South Korea South Korea
XXV (25th) 1992 1995 Barcelona Spain Spain
XXVI (26th) 1996 1999 Atlanta United States United States
XXVII (27th) 2000 2003 Sydney Australia Australia
XXVIII (28th) 2004 2007 Athens Greece Greece
XXIX (29th) 2008 2011 Beijing China China
XXX (30th) 2012 2015 London United Kingdom Great Britain
XXXI (31st) 2016 2019 Rio de Janeiro Brazil Brazil
XXXII (32nd) 2020[c] 2023 Tokyo Japan Japan
XXXIII (33rd) 2024 2027 Paris France France
XXXIV (34th) 2028 2031 Los Angeles United States United States
XXXV (35th) 2032 2035 Brisbane Australia Australia

Start and end

The Summer Olympics are more correctly referred to as the Games of the Olympiad. The first poster to announce the games using this term was the one for the 1932 Summer Olympics, in Los Angeles, using the phrase: Call to the games of the Xth Olympiad.

The modern Olympiad is a period of four years: the first Olympiad started on 1 January 1896, and an Olympiad starts on 1 January of the years evenly divisible by four.[10]

This means that the count of the Olympiads continues, even if Olympic Games are cancelled: For instance, the regular intervals would have meant (summer) Olympic Games should have occurred in 1940 and 1944, but both were cancelled due to World War II.

Nonetheless, the count of the Olympiads continued: The 1936 Games were those of the XI Olympiad, while the next Summer Games were those of 1948, which were the Games of the XIV Olympiad. The current Olympiad is the XXXII of the modern era, which began on 1 January 2020.

Note, however, that the official numbering of the Winter Olympics does not count Olympiads, it counts only the Games themselves.

For example, the first Winter Games, in 1924, were not designated as Winter Games of the VII Olympiad, but as the I Winter Olympic Games.

The 1936 Summer Games were the Games of the XI Olympiad. After the 1940 and 1944 Summer Games were canceled due to World War II, the Games resumed in 1948 as the Games of the XIV Olympiad. However, the 1936 Winter Games were the IV Winter Olympic Games, and on the resumption of the Winter Games in 1948, the event was designated the V Winter Olympic Games.[11]

The 2020 Summer Games will be the Games of the XXXII Olympiad. On 24 March 2020, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed to 2021 rather than cancelled, and thus becoming the first postponement in the 124-year history of the Olympics.[9]

Some media people have from time to time referred to a particular (e.g., the nth) Winter Olympics as "the Games of the nth Winter Olympiad", perhaps believing it to be the correct formal name for the Winter Games by analogy with that of the Summer Games. Indeed, at least one IOC-published article has applied this nomenclature as well.[12] This analogy is sometimes extended further by media references to "Summer Olympiads".

However, the IOC does not seem to make an official distinction between Olympiads for the summer and winter games, and such usage particularly for the Winter Olympics is not consistent with the numbering discussed above.


Some Olympic Committees often use the term quadrennium, which it claims refers to the same four-year period. However, it indicates these quadrennia in calendar years, starting with the first year after the Summer Olympics and ending with the year the next Olympics are held. This would suggest a more precise period of four years, but, for example, the 2001–2004 Quadrennium would then not be exactly the same period as the XXVII Olympiad, which was 2000–2003.[13]

Cultural Olympiad

See also: Art competitions at the Summer Olympics

A Cultural Olympiad is a concept protected by the International Olympic Committee and may be used only within the limits defined by an Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. From one Games to the next, the scale of the Cultural Olympiad varies considerably, sometimes involving activity over the entire Olympiad and other times emphasizing specific periods within it. Baron Pierre de Coubertin established the principle of Olympic Art Competitions at a special congress in Paris in 1906, and the first official programme was presented during the 1912 Games in Stockholm. These competitions were also named the "Pentathlon of the Muses", as their purpose was to bring artists to present their work and compete for "art" medals across five categories: architecture, music, literature, sculpture and painting.

Nowadays, while there are no competitions as such, cultural and artistic practice is displayed via the Cultural Olympiad. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver presented the Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition. The 2012 Olympics included an extensive Cultural Olympiad with the London 2012 Festival in the host city, and events elsewhere including the World Shakespeare Festival produced by the RSC.[14] The 2016 games' Cultural Olympiad was scaled back due to Brazil's recession; there was no published programme, with director Carla Camurati promising "secret" and "spontaneous" events such as flash mobs.[15] Cultural events in time for Tokyo 2020 are being planned.[16]

Other uses

The English term is still often used popularly to indicate the games themselves, a usage that is uncommon in ancient Greek (as an Olympiad is most often the time period between and including sets of games).[17] It is also used to indicate international competitions other than physical sports. This includes international science olympiads, such as the International Geography Olympiad, International Mathematical Olympiad and the International Linguistics Olympiad and their associated national qualifying tests (e.g., the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad or the United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad), and also events in mind-sports, such as the Science Olympiad, Mindsport Olympiad, Chess Olympiad, International History Olympiad and Computer Olympiad. In these cases Olympiad is used to indicate a regular event of international competition for top achieving participants; it does not necessarily indicate a four-year period.

In some languages, like Czech and Slovak, Olympiad (Czech: olympiáda) is the correct term for the games.

The Olympiad (L'Olimpiade) is also the name of some 60 operas set in Ancient Greece.


  1. ^ Not celebrated because of World War I
  2. ^ a b Not celebrated because of World War II
  3. ^ Celebrated in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Olympics by one year.[9]
  1. ^ Bickerman 1980, p. 75.
  2. ^ Bickerman 1980, p. 88.
  3. ^ Photius, Bibliotheca, Terlullian, p. 97.
  4. ^ Eusebius, Chronicle, Attalus, p. 193.
  5. ^ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Tufts.
  6. ^ of Halicarnassus, Dionysius, Roman Antiquities, University of Chicago, 1.75.
  7. ^ Siculus, Diodorus, Historical Library, University of Chicago, 11.1.2.
  8. ^ Jerome, Chronological Tables, Attalus, year 2015.
  10. ^ Olympic Charter, Bye-law to Rule 6. Available at
  11. ^ Team USA: Olympic Games Chronology Archived 2016-08-09 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ Kendall, Nigel (2011-04-08). "Community Spirit". International Olympic Committee. Retrieved 2011-06-22. The XXI Winter Olympiad was to be the first 'social media Games'.
  13. ^ USOC Quadrennial Congressional Report, June 2009 Archived 2011-07-28 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ "World Shakespeare Festival tickets go on public sale". BBC Online. 10 October 2011. Retrieved 15 August 2017.
  15. ^ Lang, Kirsty (29 July 2016). "Rio 2016: The 'secret' Cultural Olympiad". BBC Online. Retrieved 15 August 2017.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Liddell, Scott, and Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. Ὀλυμπιάς, A. II. 1