Tokyo Summer Olympics – will history repeat?



As the fear of the Coronavirus, aka COVID-19, sweeps the globe we’re facing the prospect of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics being cancelled. Will history repeat itself with a second Tokyo Summer Olympics cancelled? However, the circumstance between the two cancellations (if these 2020 Olympics are cancelled) will be very different.


The 1930s was a tumultuous decade. We saw the ‘Great Depression’, the rise of fascism, with of course the Berlin Summer Olympics being a show piece for the latter. This backdrop set the tone for the 1940 Summer Olympics, the first time they were scheduled to be held in Asia.


Japan first competed in the 1912 Olympics. The 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles saw them win seven gold medals. Lobbying for 1940 gathered momentum. Baron Jigoro Kanao, the ‘father of Judo’, and Dr Seiichi Kisi were amongst those pushing the merits of Tokyo.  It was felt that holding the games would enhance both Japan’s standing in the Asia-Pacific region, and as a leader of the non-European world. The games had long been seen as a representation of the white person’s world, thus holding them in Tokyo would shatter this image.


Though London and Rome were among the early front runners, London dropped out of the race just prior to the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.  Support for choosing Tokyo was now obtained from various nations, including Italy whose Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, made it clear that he supported Japan’s claim for 1940, if the Japanese supported Rome’s claim for 1944. These two nations were members of the Axis powers during the soon-to-be World War. Interestingly, we may have seen a trifecta (hat trick) of successive Axis Olympic locations if all went to plan: Berlin 1936, Tokyo 1940, Rome 1944.


In July 1936, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Tokyo as the location for the 1940 summer games.  IOC President Count Baillet Latour sang the praise of the chosen host city. The XII Tokyo Summer Olympics got underway. Buildings were constructed, publicity in different languages circulated, visiting nations’ teams prepared their transportation, all with a determination to present these Olympics as the great feature they were meant to be.  There were those in Japan who saw the powerful symbolism of the Olympic Games being held in Tokyo during 1940, that year being the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire. A great event was forecast, commencing on September 21, with the opening ceremony running from 3.00pm, with the conclusion on October 6. There would be features of Japanese martial arts like Budo aimed at giving it a more authentic Japanese feel.


The IOC sent Werner Klingberg as an envoy to Japan to assist with the planning/promotion for the games. He sought to work his way through the various challenges to ensure the games went ahead.  Former IOC President Pierre De Coubertin waxed lyrical about Tokyo being the chosen site. In a message to the Japanese he stated; The Task of organizing the XII Olympic games will be the greatest ever given to a country, combining Hellenism, the most precious civilisation of ancient Europe with the refined culture and art of Asia. The games were given an esteemed status.


But as war clouds gathered around the world, the prospect of the Games getting underway lengthened.  From within the Japanese Legislature, the Diet, there were calls to cancel the Games.  The Japanese military saw the Games as a distraction from their plans of imperial conquest. Precious materials like wood and metals that could have been used in the war effort were ‘wasted’ on the Olympics. Instead of the populace being focused on building a new empire, they were distracted by an Olympic Games.


Japan invaded China in 1937. This followed their annexation of Manchuria in 1931 from which they then established a puppet state, Manchukuo. We saw Japan walk out of the League of Nations in response to the latter’s condemnation of the events in Manchuria.   Talk of boycotting the Games gathered momentum as, not surprisingly, representatives of China and other nations, including America, deemed Tokyo unsuitable.  Unsurprisingly, the ongoing Japanese military action was rightly condemned by much of the world, including the League of Nations. The Sino-Japanese War subsequently claimed over 25 million lives, the overwhelming majority of them Chinese citizens.


Compounding the problems of Japanese militarism, there were logistical difficulties with the building and location of venues, also vitriolic debates were held re the route of the Olympic flame. Concerns were raised about traffic flow in Tokyo, about how people could travel to and from there. Another problem was the role of the Emperor. His voice was considered too sacred to be heard publicly, so what role could he play?


As well as concerns about the militaristic nature of Imperial Japan, there were hints of racism in opposing the choice of location. Herbert Pash, a leading British Amateur Athletic official, sought to compare Japan as being inadequate to the ‘civilised countries’ of the Northern Hemisphere.


Despite efforts by the IOC and athletic bodies in Japan, the power of the military and their supporters in the Diet was overwhelming in its insistence that the 1940 Summer Olympics be cancelled. The rulers of Japan had more important goals: imperial conquest, based on war. On July 16, 1938, the 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympics were cancelled. They were subsequently awarded to Helsinki in Finland. Then, of course, World War 2 engulfed the planet. As it turned out, there were no Olympic games until 1948 in London, with Helsinki waiting until 1952 to host their summer games.


In 1964, the citizens of Tokyo were able to enjoy hosting the Olympic Summer Games, the XVIII games. For the competing Australians, 18 medals were awarded, 6 of the gold variety, 2 of the silver, and the other 10 were, of course, bronze. It was at these games that Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser was alleged to have stolen an Olympic flag from outside the Emperor’s Palace. Despite Fraser being arrested, then released without charge, the Australian Swimming Union suspended her for 10 years, very much ending her career.


If the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are cancelled, it will be the fifth such time an Olympic Games has been cancelled, though all the other cancellations were linked to war(s). But Tokyo will be unique if having them cancelled twice. What’s the old adage about history repeating itself, firstly as a tragedy then a farce?





Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



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  1. Glen!,

    A good historical perspective and the possible racial tones an interesting angle. I liked the notion of the potential Axis trifecta – hadn’t ever thought of that. My best guess is that the Summer Games will be at least postponed this year. Worst case scenario is cancelled. Only time will tell. Thanks for the history lesson.

  2. Ta Ian. Unsure about the games being postponed as a spokesperson for the IOC made recent comments about cancellation, not postponement, being the only option. This was based on logistics, budgeting, availability, athletes training capacity, etc.

    As they say: ‘the future is unwritten.’


  3. We still keep hearing the games haven’t been cancelled or postponed. Australian Olympic officials speaking of competing.

    But as the qualifying events aren’t happening, it’s a matter of time before an official announcement is made.


  4. Well we’re now in 2021. The rescheduled Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July. However the Olympic Torch run is meant to commence on March 25. Right now global Covid numbers are concerningly high, the vaccine roll out is kicking off gradually. How long before the global uptake, and a high level of herd immunity is obtained? We’re told 20B$ has been spent in Japan to get these games underway. Big money.

    Concurrently here in Melbourne we’re awaiting the first serve in the Australian Open: tennis. The event brought 387.7M$ to the Victorian economy last year, part of a total of 2.71B$ this event has delivered over the last decade.

    Whilst all of us enjoy the sport involved, we need to be realistic these events are part of what is called the entertainment industry. This involves big money. Is it more important to hold these events to make big $$, or should our focus be the wellbeing of the sportspersons and the populace?

    Tokyo/Japan, have seen a recent increase in infections. Here in Melbourne we had very challenging 2020 with restrictions, curfews, infections, deaths. The Olympics, the Australian Open, what will 2021 hold for them. The future is unwritten.


  5. Well the Tokyo Olympic games are about to officially begin in 2 days time, although the women’s softball has just commenced and the women’s soccer will be on tonight.

    It certainly has been challenging times in Tokyo and it’s a miracle that the Olympic Games are actually happening, even without any crowds.

    As it’s still lockdown in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, it’s great to be able to watch the Olympic Games.

    Let’s hope these games can still be a great success.

  6. Daryl Schramm says

    Very interesting initial article and follow-up comments. The media are on to any stories and infractions around the games just starting. I don’t know what to make of it all (should the games have been cancelled or not). I do know that there was, for me, a sense of great interest in the Japanese Ambassador’s address to the Press Club today. And reading the history in the initial article just now reminding me of how things were between Japan and China pre 1940 (I didn’t know about the 1940 cancellation) suggests that the pandemic is not the only world problem at the minute.

  7. So disappointing for Japan to wait 8 years to get the Olympics after being announced and now not to get a crowd.

    I like how they are going ahead as athletes may only get one chance.
    I thought Tokyo should have got 2032 Olympics as compensation

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