Why Were the Olympics Split Into Summer and Winter?

The Summer Olympics were around long before the Winter Olympics. For many years, the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in the same calendar year. In 1986, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, voted to change the schedule, allowing one competition to be held every two years. Jason Stallman, one of the The New York Times' Olympic editors, said this move gave the Winter Olympics more prominence, and resulted in better media coverage for both games. The separation also generated more money for the IOC, largely from television rights.

Someone is holding up gold medals. (Image: Brian Jackson/iStock/Getty Images)

Birth of the Modern Olympics

Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin advocated reviving the Olympic Games, which had been abolished in 394 A.D. Formation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 marked the beginning of plans that culminated in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. All the sports included in the competition were summer sports. The Winter Olympics started in the 1920s.

Advent of the Winter Olympics

With the increasing popularity of winter sports, the International Olympic Committee organized an International Sports Week in France in 1924. This successful event was later named the First Olympic Winter Games. Only six sports were included -- bobsleigh, ice hockey, curling, skiing, skating and the military patrol race. While the number of sports at the winter games has remained about the same, the number of events has multiplied, with over 84 events at the 2006 games. After the introduction of the Winter Olympic Games, both the Summer and Winter Olympic events were held every four years until 1992. The separation of the games allowed the Winter Olympics to emerge from the shadow of the Summer Olympics.

Separating the Games

The 1992 winter games were held in Albertville, France, with the summer games in Barcelona, Spain. This was the last time that both events took place in the same year. The next Winter Olympic games were held in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, and with the Summer Olympics following two years later in 1996 in Atlanta. According to The New York Times’ Stallman, this strategic move on the part of the International Olympic Committee netted the organization a financial windfall. He says the rights to televise the five Olympic Games following this change cost NBC $3.5 billion, with approximately $2 billion for the rights to the 2010 and 2012 games.


In response to questions from readers who would prefer that the Olympiad -- the four years between Olympic games -- be observed, writer Stallman responded that the positive financial impact of separating the games makes it unlikely that this decision will be rescinded.

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