Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tokyo and Another Lost Olympics

Long before the 2020 Summer Games were postponed by a pandemic, Japan was chosen as the first Asian host nation. That feat required a bare-knuckle PR campaign, backroom deal-making and even a little bribery. ... Then the 1940 Tokyo Olympics went up in smoke. Eight decades later, entering what should have been the weekend of the closing ceremonies, here we are again.
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Picture a faraway land. A nation with a long and rich history—a history much longer and much richer than our own. Here the people yearn to demystify their culture and traditions, and share them with the West. More than that, they need to. They have recently been scarred by tragedy. Devastated by a natural disaster and still reeling from a blow to their self-esteem, they’re finally on the road to recovery, but the economy could use an injection of tourism dollars and a shot of national pride. By opening its arms to the world and hosting the Olympic Games, this country sees an opportunity to show its resilience, and to make its own citizens believe in their greatness once again, through sports.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that faraway land is Japan. Or it was Japan. In the fall of 2013, just two years removed from a horrific level-seven accident at three nuclear reactors in Fukushima—which itself was triggered by the Old Testament, perfect-storm double whammy of an earthquake followed by a tsunami—the International Olympic Committee held a press conference to announce that Tokyo had edged out Istanbul and Madrid to host the XXXII Olympiad, planned for July 24 through August 9 of 2020. But that description of a reeling, faraway land bolstered by the promise of Olympic uplift, only to see it all slip away, could just as easily apply to Japan in the decade leading up to the 1940 Tokyo Summer Games.

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While the 2020 Games have not (yet) been canceled outright, merely postponed until next summer in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak, Japan in 1940 would not be so lucky. In the years leading up to those Games, before a second World War seemed like a possibility, the Japanese empire found itself in a situation eerily familiar to the run-up to 2020, with skeptical eyes trained on its every move. Still recovering from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which had measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed more than 140,000 people around Tokyo, Japan desperately needed economic life support and a spiritual balm. A reason for people to lift their heads up high again. And hosting the Olympics seemed like a panacea for all of the country’s ills—proof that the Land of the Rising Sun had reemerged from the ashes.

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In the 1930s, the upper echelon of Japanese society was torn between two rivaling ideologies. On one side were the intellectuals, academics and sports enthusiasts who were convinced that the relatively new Olympic Games shared their ideals—that sports could bring people and nations together, binding them with a common cause. That belief was only bolstered after the ’32 Summer Games in L.A., where Japan won 18 medals, including seven golds.

On the other side, though, was a deeply entrenched military government rooted in the country’s glorious Samurai past, whose members believed the path to global legitimacy laid in the might of Japanese imperialism.

The former set believed that if the IOC could be persuaded to make Japan the first non-Western Olympic host, the prestige would push them to the forefront of the world’s stage. Says Roy Tomizawa, who writes about Japan and the Olympics: “The mayor of Tokyo was proud of the shiny, modern metropolis the city had become, and he wanted the world to know.” What better way to show that off?

Japan's haul in L.A., at the 1932 Summer Games: 18 total medals (fifth-best in the world), including gold in the triple jump for Chuhei Nambu.

Japan's haul in L.A., at the 1932 Summer Games: 18 total medals (fifth-best in the world), including gold in the triple jump for Chuhei Nambu.

Unfortunately, in the 1930s, the military held more sway.

The IOC, which at the time was a clubby, backslapping gentleman’s club made up exclusively of rich, white males—the father of the modern Games, an eccentric French aristocrat named Charles Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, considered women's sports to be “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate”—was slow to take the new applicants seriously when in 1932 Japan officially entered a bid to stage the XII Olympiad. The aspiring hosts were especially focused on the ’40 Games because that year would, according to their calendar, mark the 2,600th anniversary of their founding as a nation. But after their army invaded Manchuria in ’31 and pulled out of the League of Nations in ’33, their Olympic ambitions took on a new urgency.

Among potential hosts, Tokyo started as a distant third choice behind Rome and Helsinki. That is, until Japan sent its own IOC delegate, Sugimura Yotaro, on a stealth mission to Italy in 1935, where he lobbied Prime Minister Benito Mussolini to withdraw the Rome bid. Says Sandra Collins, author of The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics: “Japan basically said, ‘If you could do this for us, we’ll owe you a favor.’ ”

Surprising as it may seem, the quid pro quo actually worked … with one small condition: Japan had to promise to back Rome’s bid for the 1944 Games. Japan’s promise to stop selling arms to Ethiopia, which Italy was looking to colonize, also sweetened the deal. (When the IOC learned of the secret pact, shortly after it was made, its members were furious.)

With one rival down, Japan whipped out its checkbook and quickly put up $100,000 for a cannily crafted charm offensive. The goal: to wine, dine and shamelessly woo the IOC and its president, the Belgian Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, with an all-expenses-paid, 20-day trip to Tokyo. Going in, some of the touring members of that delegation were deeply cynical about Tokyo’s having the requisite facilities for the Games. More to the point, they believed the proposed locale was simply too far away from the rest of the world, making travel too expensive for any number of countries mired in economic depression. But Japan, hell-bent on softening its image as a military aggressor in Manchuria, proved particularly persuasive, volunteering to reach into the government’s own pockets to a degree uncommon for a host nation. “Basically, they pitched the IOC by saying, ‘We’ll pay for everything,’ ” says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “Most of the Europeans in the IOC had pretty racist views of Asians, and they didn’t really care about spreading the Games there. But after they were toured and fed, they thought: This is good; they’re going to pay for everything.”

By the end of that Tokyo boondoggle, the members of the IOC contingent were sufficiently convinced that Japan wasn’t just some inscrutable, backward country. They were sold. (Or bought, if you happened to be from Finland.) And in July 1936, it finally became official: Tokyo had won the vote to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, 37–26, over Helsinki. As gravy, the IOC would also hand Japan that year’s Winter Games, to be held in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido.

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The news was a shot in the arm for Japan. The world would finally be coming to them. “The Japanese felt they’d never gotten the recognition from the West they deserved,” says Collins. “They were finally being seen as equal, and the Olympic Games were going to be their coming-out party.”

Of course, all parties end—but no one could have predicted just how quickly this one would be over. One month after the Japan announcement, the 1936 Summer Games kicked off in Berlin, where the German capital had been transformed into a sort of monument to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. In the three short years since his appointment as chancellor, Hitler had already begun imprisoning political opponents, homosexuals and others classified as “dangerous.” He had also implemented the Nuremberg Race Laws, setting the legal framework for the persecution of Jews. And as the Games approached, Gypsies were suddenly cleared from the streets of Berlin and relocated to God-knows-where. Swastika flags hung from the rafters of every sporting venue. At the opening ceremony, German athletes gave the Nazi salute as they marched past the Führer’s box. Initially conceived as a testament to worldwide brotherhood, diversity and inclusiveness, the Olympics had been hijacked by Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and turned into the most garish Nazi rally yet.

Owens (top) took gold in the 100-meter final in Berlin, in 1936, overshadowing for a moment what amounted to a Nazi rally.

Owens (top) took gold in the 100-meter final in Berlin, in 1936, overshadowing for a moment what amounted to a Nazi rally.

The Games themselves, meanwhile, took a backseat to Germany’s Triumph of the Aryan will cavalcade of Nazi self-mythologizing, and while Jesse Owens stole the klieg light away from Hitler during his four gold-medal victories (including three world records), the IOC would end up leaving Berlin feeling like duped political stooges. They also began to wonder whether a newly militaristic Japan might try to pull off a similar stunt four summers later.

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, the time had come to pry open the national war chest and begin construction of athletic facilities, Western-style hotels and urban infrastructure in preparation for the 1940 Games. That prep, though, had barely begun before Japan’s government stepped in. Says Wallechinsky: “The military started going, ‘No, we can’t spend money to pay for these Olympics; we have something more important going on.’ ”

That more-important something was an all-out invasion of China.

Japanese troops in the summer of 1938 pushed through the Chinese mainland, toward Hankou (or what is now Wuhan).

Japanese troops in the summer of 1938 pushed through the Chinese mainland, toward Hankou (or what is now Wuhan).

By early 1938, with the Sino-Japanese War in full swing, a growing faction of the IOC began calling for the ’40 Summer Games to be taken away from Tokyo. Baillet-Latour met secretly with a Finnish delegation to see whether they would be willing to take over. Naturally, they were more than happy to step in. The Japanese knew nothing of this contingency plan, but by then even they were beginning to wonder whether they shouldn’t just give up the approaching Olympics. The only question was: How? How do you take this great acknowledgement from the world community—this public statement that you’ve finally made it—and give it back?

Finally, on July 16, 1938, Japan’s minister of health and welfare, Koichi Kido, confirmed what many people had already sensed was coming. His announcement, forfeiting the 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympics, was a mere formality for a country so deeply committed to a costly military adventure in China. Kido closed his speech by saying, “When peace reigns again in the Far East, we can then invite the Games to Tokyo and take that opportunity to prove to the people of the world the true Japanese spirit.” (It would take two and a half decades before that hope was finally realized, when the IOC finally awarded the 1964 Summer Games to Tokyo.)

Helsinki, eager to fill this new void, sprang into action, preparing sporting venues and accommodations for the world’s visiting athletes right away. But it quickly became clear that the 1940 Games were not to be. After Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, there was no way the Olympics could possibly move forward—in Helsinki or anywhere else. The threat of a second World War had become too serious for the bread and circuses of sports. Finland would officially cancel the Summer Games the following March, just three months before they were slated to begin. For the first time since ’16, and only the second time in the modern era, there would be no Olympics. For a brief moment, Japan held out hope that its war in China would be over in time to host the ’44 Games. But those, ultimately, would never happen either.

Mired in combat, the world would not see another Olympic Games until 1948, with St. Moritz, Switzerland (which had largely stayed out of the global conflict), hosting in the winter and London (still in the midst of rationing and post-war austerity) in the summer. Japan and Germany were banned from participating in either Games.

More than half a century later, compared with the millions of lives lost in World War II, it can seem trivial to consider all the wasted human potential and all the gifted athletes who never got to compete during that 12-year Olympic gap, between ’36 and ’48. Still, like Joe DiMaggio’s and Ted Williams’s losing years to military enlistment, those canceled Games inspire speculation about what might have been in Tokyo. American greats such as pole vaulter Cornelius Warmerdam and sprinters Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie, who finished second in the 200 meters in Berlin) and Jesse Owens (who beat Robinson for that Berlin gold) all remain huge what-ifs.

Jacques Rogge, then the IOC president, unveiled the Tokyo win in 2013.

Jacques Rogge, then the IOC president, unveiled the Tokyo win in 2013.

Fast-forward eight decades from those canceled 1940 Summer Olympics and we find ourselves at another what-if moment. Once again, the setting is Tokyo—but the world, of course, is different. We are at war again, but it’s a new kind of war, against an invisible enemy, with casualties topping 700,000. No one knows how long the coronavirus pandemic will last.

It could very well be that a year from now the 2021 Tokyo Games become the ’22 Tokyo Games. Or maybe they’ll be scrapped all together, an un-fun-house mirror version of 1940. “People keep asking me, What would that do to the Olympic movement?,” says Wallechinsky. “But, believe me: The Olympic movement has survived a lot worse than this.”

We can only hope he’s right.

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