This is the question that I get asked more than anything. Constantly people are coming up to me on the street, emailing me, or tweeting at me. Will, please, for the love of god, tell me; why are the Olympics always during leap year? I’m just going to post the answer right here, right now for the world to see so that I can finally spend some time with my children, rather than out on the streets and on the computers answering this simple history lesson.
Before we dive in, first let’s cover the question itself. Why are they ALWAYS during a leap year. Are they even always during one? This part is simple. Yes they are and also no they aren’t. Leap years occur every four years, as do the Olympics. However, the summer Olympics are the only events that occur the same year as the leap year. The winter Olympics occur two years before and after a summer Olympics.
So why the difference? Great question. This is where we will jump back to the history of the Olympics and just explain it all from there.
The Olympics first started in Athens, Greece around 700 B.C. The first Olympics only consisted of three events. Long jump, High Jump, and 110m hurdles. Three events. All involving jumping, or as it was more commonly called in ancient Greece, leaping. Hence the first Olympic events became known as on the streets as ‘Leap Day’.
The original games were held on the first day of march since it marked the first day of spring and were held every year, not every four as they are now. The games were a huge success, too big in fact. The entirety of Athens came out to watch their athletes compete. This led to no production, no farming, no school. Everything was put on hold. The Olympic committee thus decided that the in order to make up for the lost production from the games, they would simply give the games their own day, and created a February 29th to account for the lost day.
Competitors from Athens became known as athletes. And after the first year, warriors came from surrounding cities to become athletes and display their abilities. Athens welcomed the competition from other cities and soon, the Olympic committee decided that instead of individuals competing for themselves, it may be more fun and interesting to have cities compete against each other for the pride of their city. As word of mouth spread and popularity of the games grew, it was quickly realized that events every year were simply not practical anymore. Athletes were traveling from not only Greece, but other countries and it often took weeks or months for them to arrive. So a quick vote decided to hold the games every four years, allowing countries plenty of time to not only prepare their athletes, but also travel to Athens.
The twentieth games were the first to hold more than the original three events. This year they added many more track events that didn’t involve jumping, as well as swimming. More and more events were added throughout the following years, thus demanding the games be elongated from only one day to a full week of games, still starting on February 29th.
Eventually, it was decided that the games should travel to other countries to increase popularity, give other fans a chance to watch, and also out of fairness to the athletes who had to travel farther than others. Due to different climates of different countries during this time of year, the events were pushed back into the summer, to ensure that the weather would always allow for the games to take place.
The Olympics ended in around 300 B.C. until 1896. When the games were brought back, they included the winter games, which only split from the summer games in 1992 in hopes that having the games every two years apart from each other, would satiate the fan’s love of the events.
So although we do not celebrate the games on Leap Day any longer, we still observe Leap Day. Why? Well that’s just what we humans do. Keep traditions alive whether it makes sense to or not.