Q&A: Let the games begin

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we run rings around the Olympics…

Q: Hey AWC, are you excited about the Rio Olympics?
A: Sure.
Q: I’m excited about seeing what that crazy animated macaw and his buddies will get up to next. I loved the first two movies.
A: Um, you do realise that… oh never mind. So, do you have any word conundrums for us this week?
Q: I do actually. Tell me about “Olympics” and “Olympiad”. Are there certain rules with how you write them?
A: There are. For starters, any mention of “Olympic” or “the Olympics” should involve a capital O.
A: These games are often referred to as the 2016 Summer Olympics. But if you want to be official, it’s the “Games of the XXXI Olympiad”.
Q: The “thirty one Olympiad?” Not even “XXXIst”?
A: Nope. Roman numerals don’t go for those.
Q: So what IS an Olympiad? It’s all Greek to me.
A: It was first used back during the ancient Olympic Games (from 776BC) as a measure of the four years between each Olympics. A modern Olympiad (since 1896) is the period of four years from 1 January of the year of the Games. So the 31st (XXXI) Olympiad began on 1 January 2016, and will stretch until the end of 2019.
Q: Who decides this stuff?
A: The actress Olympia Dukakis.
Q: Really?
A: No. It’s in the Olympic Charter – basically one big Olympics style guide.
Q: So, could you say that Rio is the 31st Olympic Games?
A: No, because they’re not. They are the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. But they’re really only the 28th Games, due to the cancellation of the 1916, 1940 and 1944 events.
Q: Because, war?
A: Yep, because of war.
Q: Oooooh okay. But the four-year Olympiad still ticks over anyway?
A: Yes, it’s effectively a unit of time. So the 1936 Summer Games were the Games of the XI (11th) Olympiad. Then World War II happened, cancelling the next two. The next Games (London, 1948) were the Games of the XIV (14th) Olympiad. The 12th and 13th happened, but there was no Olympic event.
Q: So do the Winter Olympics work the same way?
A: Actually no. They DO number the Games, not the period of time. So, in 1936 it was the IV (4th) Winter Olympic Games. Then after the war in 1948 it was the V (5th) Winter Olympic Games, despite the 12 year gap. The ones in South Korea in 2018 will be the XXIII Winter Olympic Games.
Q: Hey, when did the Winter and Summer Olympics get out of sync? Looks like they used to be in the same year as each other.
A: Yeah, they made the switch in 1994.
Q: What a fun fact!
A: The funnest!
Q: So, a quick recap?
A: We are currently in the XXXI Olympiad – a four year period. Rio is the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. If they’d been cancelled due to giant Zika-infected mosquitos, the numbering would still have stood, as it counts the four-year period, not the Games themselves. For the Summer Olympics anyway.
Q: Is there a word other than Olympiad that means “a period of four years”?
A: Yes. Quadrennium.
Q: And even if I’m just describing an “Olympic-sized swimming pool”, I still need the capital “O”?
A: Always.
Q: Oh wait. Is it “Olympic-sized” or “Olympic-size” without the “d”?
A: Great question. We would opt for “sized” – and Oxford Dictionary agrees. However, “Olympic-size” is listed as an alternative and is also in widespread use. Just think how you’d describe “bite-sized” vs “bite-size” and be consistent!
Q: Gold-winning responses as usual.

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