Philip Barker

To mark the season of goodwill before the advent of e-cards, Olympic organisers used to send Christmas cards by the thousand.

Officials preparing for the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki were no exception, although the greetings they sent out towards the end of 1939 were a little different.

Instead of reindeer, a Christmas tree or the other usual festive images, the Helsinki 1940 card displayed a photograph captioned "a training field for the Olympic Games after Russian aerial bombardment."

At the time, the Finns were engaged in the Winter War, a bitter struggle to protect their homeland from an invasion by the Soviet Union.

The official bulletin of the Organising Committee reproduced the same photograph in its first issue of 1940.

It was a publication which normally included technical information on the sports organisation and updates on venues, transport and ticketing.

This particular issue led off with an article headlined "Bolshevism and Humanity", illustrated wth photographs of of civilians running to seek shelter from the bomb damage in Helsinki.

The Christmas card sent to members of the Olympic family by the 1940 Helsinki Organising Committee ©Helsinki 1940 Organising Committee
The Christmas card sent to members of the Olympic family by the 1940 Helsinki Organising Committee ©Helsinki 1940 Organising Committee

"Bolshevik Russia has broken its agreements and thrown itself brutally at Finland," the bulletin declared.

"As one, the Finns have taken up arms to defend the independence of their country. The Finnish people are fighting for their very existence."

Organising Committee President Jukka Rangell and International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Ernst Krogius insisted: "The peaceful work has had to be abandoned as all efforts are being made to ensure the defence of the right of the Finnish nation to live as it wishes on its own soil," 

Finnish Olympic chief Krogius' vice-president Erik Von Frenckell also endorsed the statement.

"We ask all our sporting friends and the sports community of the world to think of Finland, of the country entrusted with organising the Summer Olympics in 1940, which hopes to welcome the youth of the world," they said.

Helsinki had originally bid against Tokyo for the right to stage the 1940 Games.

The vote had been taken shortly before Berlin 1936 and Helsinki lost to Tokyo by 36 votes to 27.

Tokyo's Organising Committee set about its task with great enthusiasm, but within a year, Japan had begun a war with China.

It had soon become clear that it was impossible to both prosecute the war and prepare for the Olympics so, in 1938, the Games were finally handed back.

Publicity material for the Games represented Finland's rich heritage in athletics ©Helsinki 1940 Organising Committee
Publicity material for the Games represented Finland's rich heritage in athletics ©Helsinki 1940 Organising Committee

In July 1938, IOC President Comte Henri de Baillet-Latour wrote to officially inform the Finns that Helsinki was to host the 1940 Games.

"The Japanese Olympic Committee graciously offered the Finnish organisers all of the data and other material pertaining to the presentation of the Festival of 1940," IOC minutes said.

The Finns also inherited special Olympic advisor Werner Klingeberg. He had been a lieutenant of Carl Diem, organising secretary of the Berlin 1936 Olympics.

Klingeberg had been seconded to Tokyo in an early instance of the "transfer of knowledge".

Now Klingeberg headed to Helsinki, clutching Tokyo’s Olympic dossier.

Although the Finns had been part of the Russian Empire before the First World War, they had nonetheless competed proudly at the Games.

At the 1912 Games in Stockholm, distance runner Hannes Kolehmainen won three gold medals.

A bitter war with Russia at the end of the decade resulted in Finnish independence.

In the interwar years, Finnish athletes performed with considerable distinction at the Olympics.

The Helsinki Games were scheduled to open on Saturday July 20 1940.

"It is said that the Games of Berlin were the incarnation of energy and the triumph of the will," a newsletter from the Organising Committee began.

"The Games that we are preparing with all the solicitude that we dedicate to sport, we wish them to take place with harmony and friendship and we ardently want to celebrate a fraternal meeting of the elite, young and vigorous of all nations."

The main Helsinki stadium was opened in June 1938. Alongside stood a signature tower and the capacity was increased to over 60,000.

Sigfrid Edström, the leader of what is now World Athletics, visited the Finnish Athletics Championships.

This had given him the opportunity to inspect the track in the stadium and had pronounced it "ready and in excellent state."

The bulletin also carried a testimonial from Diem who spoke of the Finns' progress in glowing terms.

"The entire word rejoices to see this event take place in Finland and prepares for the Games with the same enthusiasm that Finland shows in making ready to receive its guests," Diem observed.

There was even an offer from the Germans to help televise the Games.

The Finns were in London for the IOC session in the summer of 1939 to report on their progress where organisers, conscious of the short time to prepare, had reduced the programme, excluding such sports as hockey.

There was also a shortage of hotel accommodation and the papers of the British Government included details of a campaign to encourage shipping companies to make deals for mooring in Helsinki to provide accommodation for those who could not secure hotel rooms in the city.

Almost immediately, German shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd advertised a variety of excursions to the Games departing from Bremen and Swinemünde.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the destiny of the Games was thrown into doubt.

Finland's Foreign Affairs Minister Eljas Erkko published a lengthy treatise emphasising the neutrality of his country. Olympic organisers did not intend to give up the Games without a fight.

"Finland’s position is without precedent, she is a neutral country where the Olympic Games are supposed to be held while other countries are at war," IOC President Baillet-Latour wrote.

"I beg you to let me know if you believe that it is favourable for the Olympic idea that Games should take place if the war is not over and if they are celebrated, could Helsinki rely on the participation of your country?"

In October 1939, Edström wrote from Stockholm to Baillet-Latour suggesting that providing Finland remained at peace, the Games would go ahead.

"The Finnish Olympic Committee intends to hold the Games even if the war lasts in July 1940 but on a smaller scale," Edström reported.

"I should not be surprised if also Germany would take part in spite of the war."

Finland's army fought a bitter Winter War against invading forces from the Soviet Union in 1939 ©Getty Images
Finland's army fought a bitter Winter War against invading forces from the Soviet Union in 1939 ©Getty Images

In November 1939, the situation changed dramatically. Finland was at war.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin launched his forces against the Finns.

Telephone reports from Helsinki told of four air raids on the first day.

New York Times correspondent Marcus Tollet reported that conditions were "very unpleasant in Helsinki."

A day later a Danish reporter for the Politiken newspaper telephoned his office in Copenhagen to report, "The war has only been going on for two days, but people are deadly tired, whenever one attempts to sleep and the sirens sound again, there is a feeling that it is unbearable."

The attack prompted international outrage.

There were letters of support from the Olympic Movement and others in the sporting community.

"Instead of building up youth and goodwill among nations, we see now death to the young and bitter struggle among the nations," Wang Chengting wrote sadly from China.

"The sad events are absorbing all attention here and need no further comment. My profound sympathy and high regard for your valorous and noble country, now again subjected to martyrdom," a letter from American IOC member Frederic Coudert said.

"I am sure the Mexican Olympic Committee will express on this occasion, the feelings of greatest sympathy and all our solidarity with the heroic people of Finland in these moments of unfortunate sadness for the peace loving peoples of the continent," echoed a message from the Mexican Olympic Committee.

"My sympathy is very deep with the brave people of Finland," Brooke Heckstall-Smith, secretary of the International Yacht Racing Union added.

The 1940 Olympics had initially been planned in Japan ©Getty Images
The 1940 Olympics had initially been planned in Japan ©Getty Images

Gordon "Bones" Spencer, a member of the Zuoz Lyceum Alpinum school in Switzerland rode through the Alpine villages, blew on his hunting horn and then made a speech in support of the Finnish cause.

His efforts raised £250 ($306/ €290).

Finland's Olympic organisers also appealed to a wider community outside sport.

"When thinking of Finland, may you understand that however encouraging the sympathy shown us by the world has been it is insufficient for a nation struggling against an enemy 50 times greater in size and power," they wrote.

Uruguayan President Alfredo Baldomir voted financial aid amounting to approximately $128,000 (£105,000/€122,000).

"The world does not want to see a fresh victim," he declared. "We should be failing in our duty if we did not so far as it is in our power help these heroic people."

Former American President Herbert Hoover established a fund to help the Finns and Argentina and others called for the Soviet Union to be expelled from the League of the Nations.

There was even condemnation from the Vatican.

On the battlefield, the Finnish Army, much more used to the harsh environment of the arctic winter, inflicted heavy casualties.

In March 1940, a peace treaty was signed, but soon afterwards Olympic organisers bowed to the inevitable.

The Olympic Stadium in Helsinki finally hosted the Games in 1952 ©Getty Images
The Olympic Stadium in Helsinki finally hosted the Games in 1952 ©Getty Images

"With deepest regret under prevailing international situation, they found it impossible to stage the Olympic Games," was the Finnish message to Lausanne.

"Sure that you will share with me the grievance (sic) of heroic Finland," Baillet-Latour told his fellow IOC members.

The Finns had "expressed their sincere hope that Finland will be given the privilege to organise the next Olympic Games."

That opportunity came in 1952, when the stadium intended for 1940 Games finally became Olympic soil.

It was Paavo Nurmi, the ultimate symbol of Finnish athletic excellence, who brought the Flame into the stadium.