Last updated on 20 July 2017

An Olympiad (Greek: Ὀλυμπιάς, Olympiás) is a period of four years associated with the Olympic Games of the Ancient Greeks. During the Hellenistic period, beginning with Ephorus, it 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. By extrapolation to the Gregorian calendar, the 1st year of the 699th Olympiad begins in (Northern-Hemisphere) mid-summer 2017.

A modern Olympiad refers to a four-year period beginning January 1 of a year in which the Summer Olympics are due to occur. The first modern Olympiad began in 1896, the second in 1900, and so on (the 31st began in 2016: see the Olympic Charter).

Antikes Olympia Stadion.JPG
Stadium at ancient Olympia.

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, year 1 = 220/219 BC; year 2 = 219/218 BC; year 3 = 218/217 BC; year 4 = 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

Relief greek ballplayers 500bC.jpg
A relief of the Greek Olympiad.
  • Early historians sometimes used the names of Olympic victors as a method of dating events to a specific year. For instance, Thucydides says in his account of the year 428 BC: "It was the Olympiad in which the Rhodian Dorieus gained his second victory".[5]
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus dates the foundation of Rome to the first year of the seventh Olympiad, 752/1 BC. Since Rome was founded on April 21st, which was in the last half of the ancient Olympic year, it would be 751 BC specifically. In Book 1 chapter 75 Dionysius states: "...Romulus, the first ruler of the city, began his reign in the first year of the seventh Olympiad, when Charops at Athens was in the first year of his ten-year term as archon."[6]
  • Diodorus Siculus dates the Persian invasion of Greece to 480 BC: "Calliades was archon in Athens, and the Romans made Spurius Cassius and Proculus Verginius Tricostus consuls, and the Eleians celebrated the Seventy-fifth Olympiad, that in which Astylus of Syracuse won the stadion. It was in this year that king Xerxes made his campaign against Greece."[7]
  • Jerome, in his Latin translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, dates the birth of Jesus Christ to year 3 of Olympiad 194, the 42nd year of the reign of the emperor Augustus, which equates to the year 2 BC.[8]

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 July or August. (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 deriving from a sport 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

For the modern Olympics the term was long used to indicate the games themselves, but the IOC now uses it to indicate a period of four years.

Start and end

The modern Olympiad is a period of four consecutive calendar years, beginning on the first of January of the first year and ending on the thirty-first of December of the fourth year. The Olympiads are numbered consecutively from the first Games of the Olympiad celebrated in Athens in 1896. The XXXI Olympiad began on January 1, 2016 and will end on December 31, 2019.[9]

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

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 VIII 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 the resumption of the Winter Games in 1948 was designated the V Winter Olympic Games.[10]

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.[11] 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.


The U.S. Olympic Committee often uses 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 the 2001–2004 Quadrennium would then not be exactly the same period as the XXVIIth Olympiad.[12]

Cultural Olympiad

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 2012 London Olympics included an extensive Cultural Olympiad with the London 2012 Festival. Cultural events occurred across the British Isles. A major event was the World Shakespeare Festival produced by the RSC and including the Globe to Globe Festival.


At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Cultural Olympiad presented the Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition (or CODE for short). Conforming with the tag-line "Connect.Create.Collaborate.", the festival brought both national and international artists to present digital art, music, and cinema.

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).[13] 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 North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad), and also events in mind-sports, such as the Science Olympiad, Mindsport Olympiad, Chess Olympiad and Computer Olympiad. In these cases Olympiad is used to indicate a regular event of international competition; 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. ^ Bickerman 1980, p. 75.
  2. ^ Bickerman 1980, p. 88.
  3. ^ Photius, Bibliotheca, Terlullian, p. 97.
  4. ^ Eusebius, Chronicle, Attalus, p. 193.
  5. ^ Thucydides, 3.8.1 History of the Peloponnesian War Check |url= value (help), 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.
  9. ^ Olympic Charter - Bye-law to Rule 6
  10. ^ Team USA: Olympic Games Chronology.
  11. ^ 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'.
  12. ^ USOC Quadrennial Congressional Report, June 2009.
  13. ^ Liddell, Scott, and Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. Ὀλυμπιάς, A. II. 1


  • Bickerman, Elias J (1980), Chronology of the Ancient World (Aspects of Greek & Roman Life) (2nd sub ed.), Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-1282-X

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