Hosting the Summer Games require years of planning and millions of dollars. Stadiums are built, funds raised, posters painted, tickets purchased and hotels and planes booked. What happens when it’s all in vain?
That’s the intriguing story behind the Olympics of 1940 and 1944, each facing unfortunate timing, falling within the Second World War years. First Tokyo, then Helsinki, Finland, won the right to hold the 1940 competitions. London was to have hosted the 1944 Summer Games. None of the capitals got their moment in the sun, however, due to the life and death events beyond the sports arena.
“We call the Summer Games of 1940 and 1944 the ‘Lost Olympics’,” explained Dr. Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, president and chief executive officer of The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “Because of the war, these games never happened. As we celebrate the 2012 games in London, the story behind these earlier efforts is fascinating – just one of the many interesting details about WWII we explore at the Museum.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) plans for the 1940 Summer Games took many unexpected turns as the world fell to fighting. During the 1930s Japan competed with Fascist Italy for the right to host an Olympiad. Mussolini eventually gave up his ambitions to hold the Games in Rome and in 1936 the IOC awarded Tokyo the 1940 Games. It was a proud moment for the Japanese people, who considered their selection an acknowledgement by the West of the equality of Asian athletes.
The decision for Tokyo posed problems from the start. The 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Berlin had shown the kind of spectacle a totalitarian power could produce in hosting the world’s most popular sports competition. Opened by Hitler, glamorized by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and shrewdly exploited by Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the Berlin Games minted PR gold for the Nazis — creating a platform for promoting their racist ideology. Many feared that Tokyo’s 1940 Games and its commemoration of the 2600th year of the Empire would become a publicity coup for Japan’s ruling warlords — most especially against the backdrop of Japan’s war of conquest in China in the late ‘30s.
Japan had sparred with a weakened China since 1931 but these actions became a full-fledged war in 1937 when Japanese forces invaded China and took the capital city of Nanjing (Nanking) with a savagery that resulted in approximately 300,000 civilian deaths. This terrifying episode would become known the world over as “The Rape of Nanking.”
By 1938 the “China incident,” as Japan’s Olympic delegation called the brutal occupation, had become a cause celebre in the international community with the USA, UK and Scandinavian countries threatening to boycott the Tokyo Games due to the Sino-Japanese war. Moreover, nationalistic segments within Japanese society resisted the Games as a Western intrusion. In July 1938 the Japanese government abruptly cancelled the competition, citing the need to conserve resources in wartime. The government’s decision to withdraw its bid for the 1940 Games stunned its Japanese supporters.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) reassigned the 1940 games to Helsinki (deciding against a bid by Detroit). But the looming war in Europe finally destroyed planning for the 1940 Games entirely. The neutral Finns, after spending $10 million on the Games, were forced to cancel the sports extravaganza in April 1940 when the Soviet Union invaded their country.
In June 1939 the IOC arrived in London to consider it as the site for the 1944 Summer Games. London was keen on assuming the role, having hosted the Games in 1908. Despite talk of war, the city spared little expense to impress the “right people,” escorting the 40-member IOC upon its arrival at Saint James Palace to artistic performances and Savoy dinners and dazzling committee members with royalty plopped down among the fingerbowls. The charm offensive worked, and the IOC awarded the 1944 Summer Games to the British capital. London beat out rivals such as Belgrade, Lausanne, and an increasingly brash Detroit, the growing center for mid-century technology and home of Ford and Chrysler’s miraculous assembly lines.
London’s victory was short-lived. Three months after the IOC’s decision Hitler invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939. All over the world, the opening of hostilities altered every plan and calculation, including the Olympics.
With war soon raging across the globe, the IOC cancelled the London Games. The organization would hold a tiny ceremony in neutral Switzerland in the summer of 1944, reminding the world that the spirit of peaceful international athletic competition still flickered; but a warring world took little notice. The Olympics were cancelled for the duration of hostilities.
After the war, London finally hosted the Olympic Games in 1948. Still battered and bruised from the bombing raids of the London Blitz, the city staged an austere version. Helsinki went on to host the games in 1952 and Tokyo would host them in 1964. Gradually the memories of the “Lost Olympics” would fade – swept aside by the epic battles. Nevertheless, they remain a fascinating side story of WWII and a haunting victim of the human capacity for war.
“Thankfully, the 2012 games now underway in London, are being conducted in the spirit of peace and the Olympics remain an enduring symbol of what unites humanity rather than divides us,” Mueller said.