Philip Barker

As the Olympic world hurtled towards the postponement this week, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō spoke of a 40-year Olympic cycle. He recalled the Moscow 1980 Games, when Japan joined a boycott, and looked even further back to 1940, when Tokyo was awarded the Olympics but they never took place.

"It's a problem that's happened every 40 years. It's the cursed Olympics and that's a fact."

Asō’s words recall a time many might wish to forget before the Second World War. In that decade, it was not an unseen virus but military expansion which threatened the Games.

Yet it took a long time for Tokyo to bow to the inevitable.

“I don’t see any reason for anyone to say anything about abandoning the Games”, said veteran International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Jigorō Kanō to foreign pressmen in early 1938.

It was a time when Japanese sport was on the rise. At the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, triple jumper Mikio Oda had won their first Olympic gold medal, and in 1932 the Japanese men’s swimming team won five golds in the Olympic pool at Los Angeles.

Whilst they were in California, the Japanese delegation gave a banquet for IOC members and “begged the committee to award the Games to Tokyo. The wish of the entire population is that the Games of 1940 will be celebrated in Tokyo.”

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō recently called the Olympics
Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō recently called the Olympics "cursed" ©Getty Images

They pointed out that the year was also the 2,600th anniversary of the installation of Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan.

On his return home, IOC member and Japanese Olympic Committee President Dr Seiichi Kishi reported to the Emperor.

An “Olympic Invitation Committee” was established. This, like many bid committees since, invoked a familiar figure.

‘’According to the wish of the founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Torch should be lit on the soil of the Orient and not confined to Europe and America alone.”

“Weather conditions in favour with other countries are very unfavourable. It will need constant efforts if we desire to accomplish what we wish.”

Originally scheduled for 1935, the vote was eventually taken at the 1936 IOC Session in Berlin. Rome had also been a candidate, but the Italians agreed to stand aside, a decision praised by the Japanese as Benito ‘’Mussolini’s generous understanding.”

When the final presentations were made, IOC President Comte Henri Baillet-Latour spoke of the "purely unselfish sporting spirit" of Japanese youth.

In a parallel with Tokyo 2020’s "Reconstruction Games", Count Michimasa Soyeshima spoke of the rebuilding after the earthquake and fire which devastated Tokyo in 1923.

Coubertin, the renovator of the modern Olympic movement, described "the task of celebrating the XII Olympic Games will be the greatest ever given to a country for it does not mean merely to pursue the Olympic Torch to unite the whole of Asia with modern Olympism but also to combine Hellenism the most precious civilization of ancient Europe with the refined culture and art of Asia.”

In the final vote, Tokyo beat Helsinki and was confirmed as host city. The reaction back home was described as “one big jubilee.”

An Organising Committee was swiftly constituted and declared: “The celebration of the Olympic Games in Tokyo means not only the highest ideals of mankind as manifested in sport but also added glory to the Japanese nation.”

Amongst those who were made members was General Hideki Tojo, the infamous war leader, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who later oversaw the attack on Pearl Harbour. 

Great festivities were planned for the 2,600th anniversary. The Olympics were to be “ a tremendous spiritual aid to the people of Japan.”

Some in Europe remained sceptical that the Japanese would be able to pull it all off. IOC President Baillet-Latour met German professor Carl Diem, a leading figure in the organisation of the 1936 Berlin Games. Diem proposed his colleague Werner Klingeberg as a special adviser to Tokyo.

"Baillet- Latour is prepared to impose the condition on the Japanese that they engage one of my colleagues for the organisation of the Games. I am to work out a document for him to say what demands are to be placed on the Japanese", wrote Diem.

By March 1937, an invitation to Klingeberg was formally issued and he travelled to Tokyo.

The plans for Games were apparently formulated at impressive speed. A very detailed activity report ran to 181 pages.

Accommodation cost in the village was fixed at one dollar a day, locations for stadia were considered and even an ambitious Olympic Torch Relay proposed by Swedish geographer Sven Hedin.

Three date options were considered including the beginning of August. The Europeans considered that “the summer in Tokyo would be too hot” - a claim refuted by Tokyo organisers as ‘’untenable”. When the IOC met for its 1937 Session in Warsaw, it decided on late September as the starting point after long discussions.

In a detailed schedule then produced, September 22 1940 - a Sunday - was to be the first day of competition.

The morning began with canoeing, fencing, modern pentathlon and wrestling, with athletics in the afternoon. In those days, demonstration sports were still included.

Martial arts was to have included judo and kendo. Baseball, recalled for Tokyo 2020, was also to have been part of the 1940 demonstration programme.

Japanese aggression in Manchuria undermined the country's bid to host the Games ©Getty Images
Japanese aggression in Manchuria undermined the country's bid to host the Games ©Getty Images

Yet within weeks of the Session came the events which would cast a shadow and ultimately doom the 1940 Tokyo Olympics.

There had been Japanese military action in Manchuria in 1931, but in 1937, Japanese forces embarked on a full-scale war with China. Rather euphemistically, the official report described this as ‘’the Japan China incident.”

Japanese Olympic officials remained determined not to let go, in public at least.

“War in China is nothing to do with sport”, asserted Kanō, but his fellow IOC member Soyeshima's correspondence with Baillet-Latour betrayed the difficulties that were being faced. Not least was the problem of funding. Despite bullish public pronouncements, government money was not forthcoming and raw materials were also in short supply.

In 1938, the IOC met in Cairo for the annual Session. The minutes record that President Baillet-Latour read a telegram from Chinese member CT Wang ”proposing that the site of the Games should be changed.”

The IOC insisted that “since the text of the Olympic Charter contains nothing which would permit such a decision, on the motion of the President, the committee passed onto the agenda.”

Even so, their concern was clear in the minutes of the Session. “If Japan could not give sufficient guarantee for the organization of these Games then she should inform the International Olympic Committee in time to enable it to select some other site.”

The IOC also said it would “caution Japan, putting her on her guard as to the seriousness of the situation. If between now and then the hostilities in China were not ended, he advised Japan in her own interests, as in those of the International Olympic Committee, to renounce the celebration of these Games.”

Two people pose with a banner for the the Tokyo 1940 Games which never took place ©Getty Images
Two people pose with a banner for the the Tokyo 1940 Games which never took place ©Getty Images

Kanō remained steadfastly committed to the Games.

“There is no reason why the Olympic Games should not be held. We have invited foreign nations to attend. They’ve accepted. Is there any reason to abandon the Games?”

The IOC noted in "the course of the discussion it was sought to make Professor Kanō realise the importance of the situation.”

Before returning to Japan, he embarked on a trip to the United States, where he made a radio broadcast promoting the Games. But on the return journey he became ill and died. The cause of death that was given was pneumonia. His passing seemed symbolic.

Within a month, Tokyo Organising Committee President Prince Iesato Tokugawa wrote to the IOC members to inform them that “the Imperial Government decided to advise the organising committee to give up the privilege in time for some other country to step in.

“The trouble in China had come to take on larger proportions and it was gradually realised that all of Japan’s resources must be mobilised to enable the nation to make a speedy end of the trouble.”

The letter signed off, ‘’we still cherish hopes of being able to act as hosts in the not too distant future.”

Baillet-Latour replied that ‘’by doing so you have proved to the world that you have the Olympic spirit, you realise that the Olympic Games is not a national business or propaganda.” The Games were reassigned to Helsinki but never took place because of the war.

Baillet-Latour had told his Japanese colleagues he was “ hoping for better days when you will be able to play your part for the diffusion of Olympic ideals in the Far East.”

Many will feel the sentiments expressed by Thomas Bach earlier this week were rather similar. At least Tokyo 2020 will take place, albeit sometime in 2021.