Are the Olympics Ever Canceled?

By: Jessika Toothman  | 

mascot statues are unveiled at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters
Two mascot statues are unveiled at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters for the 100 days to go until Tokyo 2020, in April 2021. The Olympics was postponed for one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. © Tokyo 2020 and TMG/IOC

War has a way of really killing the mood. And people. Lots of people. Thanks to two mammoth worldwide conflicts, the Olympic Games have, indeed, been skipped a few times. The games scheduled to be held in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — all years when loads of countries were entrenched in World Wars I and II — were canceled due to the massive carnage that was being carried out.

That's not a decision that the buttoned-up International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes lightly. Even when the IOC decided in 1986 to begin staggering the games so Winter and Summer Olympics were not held in the same year, but in two-year intervals, the games were never skipped. Instead, the Olympics went on as scheduled in 1988 and 1992 and a second Winter Olympics was held in 1994 (Lillehammer) to put the international events apart.

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But 1916, 1940 and 1944 were grim years, and holding the Olympics ended up taking a back burner due to the very dire circumstances playing out on the world stage.

World War I and the 1916 Olympics

In the first case, let's set that stage. The year was 1914, and much Olympic preparation was afoot, as directed by the members of the IOC. The flag with its iconic rings was unveiled for the first time, along with the choice of the host city for the 1916 games (back then the host city didn't get the seven years' notice it does now). Ironically, the choice was Berlin.

While the IOC was busy getting ready, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the Germans were quick to join the battle, although their targets were primarily Russia and France. Belgium — a neutral nation — was the next target. In response, Britain joined in, and World War I was well underway.

Given the state of world affairs, British members of the IOC protested the fact that Berlin was still the top choice for hosting the 1916 games, and resigned when their demands for an alternative location were not met. At the same time, the Germans were adamant and continued plans for the VI Olympiad. The Germans did issue a caveat though: Only nations who were on their side or neutral could participate. Several U.S. cities offered themselves as replacement sites, while other IOC members said there could be no games until 1920.

Pierre Coubertin, founder of the IOC and widely recognized father of the modern Olympics, had this to say on the matter: The IOC could not withdraw the games without consulting the designated city (which, presumably, would have to give its consent). At the same time, Coubertin noted that it was possible these particular games would not occur.

As the war trudged on, Coubertin's prediction proved accurate. The 1916 games were not held. It was, after all, "The War to End All Wars." The stadium stood silent.

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War and the 1940 and 1944 Games

parade of nations, 1936 Olympics
Opening ceremonies take place at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the last games held before an eight-year break due to World War II.
Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P017045/ Frankl, A./CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia

Fast-forward a few decades and Germany finally got the chance to hold the games in Berlin in 1936, although those games went down in history as the one German Chancellor Adolf Hitler used to showcase Nazi propaganda. Meanwhile, the IOC declared an Asian nation as the future site of an Olympics. In 1940, Japan was slated to become the first country in Asia to host the games.

Rumor has it that Tokyo won the role of host city because of a bit of skullduggery. Michimasa Soyeshima, one of Japan's IOC members, reportedly met with Benito Mussolini and promised him the Japanese contingent's backing for the 1944 games to be held in Rome if he would weigh in on Japan's bid for 1940. He may have tampered with the opinions of other members, too. Of course, all this effort was for naught, as the 1944 games never happened either.

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So what happened exactly? Again, the IOC refused the idea of moving the 1940 games, which became a matter of exacerbated controversy when Japan invaded China. Eventually, though, it became apparent that the games would not go forward. Martial law, at that point, ruled Japan, and decreed that the games were not going to happen. World War II was still raging in 1944, causing the cancelation of the 1944 games, and the Olympics would not again see the world stage until 1948, when they took place in London.

Tokyo 2020 and a Worldwide Pandemic

After World War II, all Summer Olympic games took place as scheduled until the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The IOC President Thomas Bach announced in March 2020 that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo "must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community." This was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of this writing, the Tokyo Games are still scheduled to take place July 23 through Aug. 8, 2021 under strict guidelines to ensure the safety of athletes and attendees. Interestingly, the games are still referred to as the 2020 Olympics, even though they are to be held in 2021.

Billions of dollars from TV rights and merchandising are at stake, so an outright cancelation is unlikely. However, the only spectators allowed will be those who live within Japan's borders. The Japanese government has barred overseas visitors from entering the country. And one April 2021 poll showed that 72 percent of Japanese residents still think the games should be canceled or postponed.

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Originally Published: Jun 8, 2012

Lots More Information

Author's Note: Are the Olympics Ever Skipped?

This was an interesting article to write, if a bit of a downer at times. World Wars are not cool, guys. So don't start them! Vent international issues through Olympic competitions, please, or World Cups. Whichever. On the other hand, I'm not ashamed to admit, reading about the POW games powerfully moved me. I found that information at the last minute, by chance, and I'm thrilled I was able to share it. The human spirit is amazing and unshakable, even in the most dire of circumstances. I applaud those brave, steadfast participants.

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  • Findling, John and Kimberly Pelle. "Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement." Greenwood Publishing Group. 1996. (May 4, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=vj5-Srq3ki4C&lpg=PA52&dq=1916%20Summer%20Olympics%20berlin&pg=PA51#v=onepage&q=1916%20Summer%20Olympics%20berlin&f=false
  • Grys, Iwona. "The Olympic Idea transcending war." Muzeum Sportu i Turystyki. (May 4, 2012) https://digital.la84.org/digital/collection/p17103coll1/id/35452/
  • Guttmann, Allen. "The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics: Japan, the Asian Olympics and the Olympic Movement." Amherst College. 2007. (May 4, 2012) http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH2007/JSH3403/jsh3403s.pdf
  • Guttman, Allen. "The Olympics, a History of the Modern Games." The University of Illinois Press. 1992. (May 4, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=TbLmQQG-2bQC&lpg=PA53&vq=1931&dq=1931%20Summer%20Olympics%20berlin%20barcelona&pg=PA38#v=onepage&q=1931&f=false
  • London 2012. (May 4, 2012) http://www.london2012.com/
  • NBC Olympics Coverage. (May 4, 2012.) http://www.nbcolympics.com.
  • NOSTOS Hellenic Cyber Centre. Brief History of the Olympic Games." (May 4, 2012) http://www.nostos.com/olympics/
  • Official Site of the Olympics Movement. (May 4, 2012) http://www.olympic.org/
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  • Shillony, Ben-Ami. Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (May 4, 2012) http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/680
  • Sochi 2014. (May 4, 2012) http://sochi2014.com/en/

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