Why Was the 1940 Olympics Not Held?

History of the Tokyo 1940 Summer Olympic Games

Tokyo 1940 Olympics
By Wada Sanzō [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Olympic Games has a longstanding history. Ever since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, a different city in the world would host the games once every four years. This tradition has only been broken three times, and the cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, is one of them.

Tokyo Campaign

During the bidding process for the next Olympic Games host city, Tokyo officials and International Olympic Committee (IOC) representatives were excited about campaigning for Tokyo as they hoped it would be a diplomatic move.

At the time, Japan had occupied and established a puppet state in Manchuria since 1932. The League of Nations upheld China's appeal against Japan, essentially condemning Japan's aggressive militarism and alienating Japan from world politics. As a result, Japanese delegates staged a walkout from the League of Nations in 1933. Winning the 1940 Olympic host city bid was seen as a chance for Japan to mitigate international tensions.

However, the Japanese government itself was never interested in hosting the Olympics. Government officials believed it would be a distraction from their expansionist goals and would require resources to be diverted from military campaigns.

Despite little support from the Japanese government, the IOC officially decided that Tokyo would host the next Olympics in 1936. The Games were scheduled to be held from Sept. 21 to Oct. 6. If Japan did not forfeit the 1940 Olympics, it would have been the first non-Western city to host the Olympics.

Japan's Forfeiture

The government's concern that hosting the Olympics would detract resources from the military proved to be true. In fact, organizers for the Olympics were asked to construct sites using wood because metal was needed on the war front.

When the Second Sino-Japanese War erupted on July 7, 1937, the Japanese government decided that the Olympics should be dropped and officially announced its forfeiture on July 16, 1938.

 Many countries were planning on boycotting the Olympics in Tokyo anyway as a protest against Japan's aggressive military campaign in Asia. 

The 1940 Olympic stadium was meant to be the Meiji Jingu Stadium. The stadium was eventually used after all when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics.

Suspension of the Games

The 1940 Games were rescheduled to be held in Helsinki, Finland, the runner-up in the 1940 Olympics bidding process. The dates for the games changed to July 20 to Aug. 4, but in the end, the 1940 Olympic Games were never meant to be.

The start of World War II in 1939 caused the games to be canceled, and the Olympic Games did not begin again until London hosted the competition in 1948. 

Alternative 1940 Olympic Games

While the official Olympic Games were canceled, a different kind of Olympics was held in 1940. Prisoners of war in a camp in Langwasser, Germany, held their own DIY Olympic Games in August 1940. The event was called the International Prisoner-of-War Olympic Games. The Olympic flag and banners for Belgium, France, Great Britain, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands were drawn on a prisoner's shirt using crayons. The 1980 movie Olimpiada '40 ​recounts this story.