When the Tokyo Olympics went missing

(Representational Image)

By Ken Belson

The exhibits in the Japan Olympic Museum in central Tokyo, near the new $1.4 billion national stadium, are devoted primarily to the history of the Olympics and Japan’s participation, most notably in 1964, when Tokyo last hosted the Summer Games.

But tucked into a corner, almost as if it were an afterthought, is a display about the 1940 Tokyo Games, sometimes called the “Missing Olympics.” The showcase includes a poster of an Olympic athlete standing next to a mythic Japanese figure, their arms raised in salute, Mount Fuji in the background. There are official pamphlets, pins and logos. And there are typewritten letters, including one that thanked Werner Klingeberg, an adviser from the International Olympic Committee who assisted the Japanese organizers.

The 1940 Games in Tokyo and in Sapporo, where the much smaller Winter Olympics were to be held, were undone by Japan’s military government, which resisted funding the competitions while it waged war on China. The organizers returned their invitation to host the Games. Helsinki took over the Summer Olympics, but the event was canceled after World War II broke out.

“I rise with mixed feeling, thankfulness shaded with regret,” Matsuzo Nagai, general secretary of Japan’s Olympic Committee, wrote in 1938 after the Games were returned. He said he was thankful for Klingeberg’s help but disappointed that the “brilliant and perfect occasion in 1940” would not be held because of a “sudden turn of events.”

A historical footnote for decades, the episode has suddenly come out of the shadows after last week’s decision by the IOC and Japan to delay the 2020 Games, which will now start July 23, 2021. The circumstances, of course, were vastly different. This time, Japan and the IOC postponed the Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But there are many echoes that make those “Missing Olympics” relevant today. Back then, as well as now, Japan hoped the Olympics would stimulate Tokyo’s tourism industry. Both times, too, organizers used the Games to highlight reconstruction efforts — from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and then the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima. (The upcoming Tokyo Games have been called the “Recovery Olympics.”) In the 1930s and again today, the organizers saw hosting the Olympics as a way to solidify Japan’s international standing.

“People have said the Olympics in 2020 looks like the one in 1940, the political situation, the political chaos, saying it’s a recovery from a domestic earthquake,” said Minoru Matsunami, a sports historian at Tokai University in Hiratsuka City.

Some of the public messaging was similar, too. In 1938, just days before Nagai and the organizers returned the 1940 Games, they were trying to reassure skeptics that there would be no change in plans. In the middle of last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said that leaders from the Group of 7 nations supported a “complete” Olympics and that organizers were forging ahead with plans for the Olympic torch relay. A week later, Abe agreed to postpone the Games, set to start in July, until next year.

“It was eerily reminiscent,” said Sandra Collins, author of “The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics.” “There is what the Japanese say publicly to keep up appearances, that notion of saving face and having grand public gestures.”

The Olympics have been canceled only three times — in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — all because of world wars. And the 1940 Olympics were also a rare instance of a winning bidder returning the Games to the IOC. (Denver returned the 1976 Winter Games because the organizers could not raise enough money.)

The 1940 Games were troubled from the start, the victim of political infighting and competing visions. The mayor of Tokyo began lobbying to host the Olympics in 1930 to celebrate the city’s rebirth after the cataclysmic earthquake seven years earlier. The effort seemed quixotic. Even after extensive rebuilding, Japan’s representatives to the IOC felt Tokyo still lacked enough Western-style hotels, foreign language interpreters and sports facilities to properly host the event, Collins said. Many IOC members were also worried about the cost of traveling to Japan when several countries were still mired in the Great Depression.


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