When Tokyo was selected to host in 1936, it was a surprise for a few reasons. For one, it was the first time a non-Western country had been picked. But also, the Japanese Empire had invaded Manchuria and withdrawn from the League of Nations, drawing diplomatic concern and humanitarian scorn. Japanese organizers wanted to host as a way to shore up international goodwill, according to Sandra Collins in her book, “The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics: Japan, the Asian Olympics and the Olympic Movement.”
Then came the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Berlin was selected to host the Summer Games before Adolf Hitler took over, but by the time of the competition, he had transformed it into racist propaganda and a demonstration of his power.
“Hate and fear are known to be blowing hard on the Olympic flame in Berlin,” the Washington Post editorial board wrote. “Will there be any essence of fair play and sportsmanship left to illuminate the twelfth Olympics in Tokyo?”
International Olympic Committee officials began to worry about a nationalistic repeat in Tokyo, Collins wrote. It didn’t help when Japan resumed its hostilities with China the next year.
By early 1938, the British delegation was threatening a boycott, spurring rumors that the United States might follow. The New York Times reported that a poll of potential U.S. Olympians showed overwhelming support for attending the Games. But a respected member of the American Olympic Committee stepped down, saying he could not in good conscience send athletes “to a country that stands for what Japan stands for.”
And in Japan, pressure was mounting. Although construction on a rowing course, a cyclodrome and a new hotel was complete, a wartime austerity plan created a shortage of steel needed to finish the job.
Finally, in mid-July, the government pulled the plug, forcing the organizing committee to announce it was forfeiting the chance to host the Games and would try again in 1944. Olympic officials said the Games would be postponed and soon named Helsinki as the new host city of the Summer Olympics. The Winter Olympics, which had been originally been awarded to Sapporo, Japan, and were also forfeited, were sent back to its previous host city, Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Nazi Germany. (The Summer and Winter Olympics were held in the same year every four years until 1992.)
But the march to World War II had begun. When the Nazis invaded Poland, the 1940 Olympics were canceled altogether. Instead of the track and field or pitch or pool, the young athletes of the world headed to the front lines. At least 500 athletes who had previously competed in the Olympics were killed during World War II, according to Sports Reference.
As Japan and the IOC hit the pause button on the 2020 Games, Olympic hopefuls’ dreams of glory will probably be deferred for another year.
But it’s a better fate than that of the athletes who might have won gold in 1940. Their names and achievement are mostly lost to history.
In Hawaii, champion swimmer Takashi “Halo” Hirose hung up his trunks and enlisted in the U.S. Navy instead. Track star Eulace Peacock, who had beaten Jesse Owens for a spot on the 1936 Olympic team before being sidelined by an injury, was cheated a second time out of his chance to take the world stage.
In 1944, the Olympics were canceled again. By the time they resumed in London in 1948, Peacock had retired.
As for Tokyo, the city finally hosted the Olympics in 1964.
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