Many major sporting events are held every 4 years such as the Olympics, Football World Cup, UEFA European Championship, Rugby World Cup, etc.

I've had a look around and I've yet to find an answer that isn't personal opinion or is backed up with a source - one site also said that there is no evidence as per why the Olympics is held once every 4 years.

The Olympic games registration website's FAQ states that it is held every 4 years to respect tradition, but that leaves the Fifa website does not offer a reason why the world cup is held every 4 years. Is it a case that they followed the model of the olympics for traditions sake?

To respect the ancient origins of the Games. At that time, sports competitions were organised in Olympia and were named after their location, i.e. Olympic Games. These Games were held at the same place every four years. This four-year period acquired the name Olympiad, and was used as a date system: time was counted in Olympiads, rather than years.

So, since when have these major sporting events been held every 4 years? The decision to hold them every 4 years may have been relevant due to the pressures of the era in which they begun, transport limitations, foreign policy etc.

To be clear - I am specifically asking about why the trend developed. I'm working on the assumption that the 4 year gap was not arbitrarily decided on and while the Olympics may be on a 4 year cycle to respect tradition/the origins of the tournament other tournaments with the same gap cannot share this reasoning. Research on the beginnings of the Football World Cup may present a reason for the other tournaments sharing the same cycle e.g. Spread financial pressure, it wasn't viable for athletes to gather more often due to transport, it's an acknowledged tradition in the sporting world established by the Olympic Games.

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    i'd be fairly confident that the football & rugby tournaments were instituted on a cycle specifically designed to avoid clashing with the Olympics (and with each other). So if you have the answer for the Olympics you get the rest of your answer. but i'm only guessing. Jul 15, 2013 at 13:08
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    If you refocus the question on the history of the Olympics, this might be on topic.
    – MCW
    Jul 15, 2013 at 14:04
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    I was more of aiming to find out about why the 4 year gap was decided on? I was assuming that back in the day there were a series of reasons rather than just arbitrarily selecting 4 years.
    – Kobunite
    Jul 15, 2013 at 14:06
  • To be clear, I'm asking about the trend - hence why I mention multiple tournaments rather than a singular instance, and seeing as the the RWC started in '87 and UEFA in '60 I judged it to be a historical question.
    – Kobunite
    Jul 15, 2013 at 14:13
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    @MarkC.Wallace: I made a couple changes that put the question in the past tense, and possibly made it "historical."
    – Tom Au
    Jul 15, 2013 at 18:35

2 Answers 2


Olympic Games in old Greece were traditionally held every 4 years. Modern olympic Games respect that tradition. While in the beginning of modern Olympics, there were little economic pressure on the host (there were not as many sports as present day and no expensive infrastructure was needed), nowadays, it is just not economically feasible to hold them more often than once in every 4 years. (Bear in mind that Winter Olympic Games are also held every 4 years, but on 2 year delayed cycle)

Regarding other big competitions like FIFA WC and others, they face the same problems. Stadiums are expensive and every country organizing such a competition must build them. Please note that the host is known much earlier and the city/country has much more time to prepare - typically 2 or 3 cycles which is 8 to 12 years.

So that's the first reason.

Also, it could be a problem if other major competitions overlap. If, for instance, Olympic Games are held every 4 years and FIFA WC every 3 years, then every 12 years both competitions would be held at the same time.

That would be a great problem because the athletes would not be available for both competitions, TV could not follow both etc.

So the second reason is also of practical nature.

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    The only reason that FIFAWC, RWC etc chose 4 years instead of 3 or 5 is not to overlap with Olympics, the first major international sport event. Be aware that all those events are competition to each other and each tries it's best not to be overshadowed by other. The easiest way for that is to hold events at different times to maximize sponsors, media attention, broadcast royalities etc. Since the Olympics started first with its 4 year cycle, others had no choice other to conform to it. Cause nobody wants to compete with olypics you know...
    – kolja
    Jul 15, 2013 at 14:29
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    my point is that there are no "deeper" reasons for other events to choose 4 years cycle other then not to compete with the olympics. so it is not "arbitrary" it is very practical.
    – kolja
    Jul 15, 2013 at 14:36
  • Ty! :-) I'm not editing in regards to your answer - you raise some valid points. I'm editing in response to criticism to try to improve the question and make it clearer what I am asking. Thanks for your answer!!
    – Kobunite
    Jul 15, 2013 at 14:40
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    UEFA European Championships are held the same year as Olympic games, but in other months. Although this is only a continent game, this is one of major games in the world. Some figures on the UEFA site for last Euro 2012.
    – Voitcus
    Jul 16, 2013 at 8:38
  • Yes, but men's football at the olympics is a rather minor event, with mainly young players participating, and only 8 teams. There is no question that the European championship is more important for those that qualify for both - compare the teams of Portugal and Sweden in the olympics and the EC.
    – andejons
    Aug 12, 2016 at 12:44

First, not all world championships is every fourth year: Ice hockey is every year, athletics every second. However, I could not find any event held every third or every fifth year, so this does not really break the basic four-year pattern (Badminton seems to have used a three-year schedule for a while, but is now on a four-year one). This supports the theory of a general connection with the olympic schedule.

In many cases, also, it seems like the olympic games were for many sports considered as the world championships. This is the case of e.g. football ("soccer", if you're from the US), athletics and ice hockey. While this obviously, did not guarantee that it would continue to be held every fourth year, it did establish a basic pattern.

Also, one should consider that one can probably not have events more dispersed than four years: for most sports, a four-year schedule means there will only be two or three world championships during the best years of a career. A five-year schedule would reduce this further. Together with the wish to avoid two large events the same year, this would mean cycles of two or four years. For some sports, it appears that reducing the value of every fourth world championship is a bearable cost, so theycan have events every year.

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