26 Mar 2020 Tokyo 2020

The modern Games caught in the upheavals of history

In 124 years, from their revival by Pierre de Coubertin until this week’s decision to postpone the Olympic Games in Tokyo from 2020 to 2021, the Olympic Games had never been postponed. But the 20th century’s two world wars led several editions to be cancelled. Let’s take a look at the Games that were caught in the upheavals of modern history.

Berlin 1916

On 4 July 1912, at the 15th IOC Session in Stockholm, the IOC awarded the sixth edition of the modern Games to Berlin, rather than the other candidate, Alexandria, in Egypt. Pierre de Coubertin sent a telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm II to inform him of this.

A 30,000-seat stadium was built to the west of Berlin, in Grunewald. It was intended as a sporting complex, to be, in the words of Olympic historian Volker Kluge, “a central site which would become the spiritual home of German sport”. On 8 June 1913, the “German Stadium” was opened during the celebrations held to mark the silver jubilee of Kaiser Wilhelm II.


The Games programme was divided into three parts: “Games Week” from 28 May to 4 June; “Stadium Week” from 1 to 10 July; and “Sailing and Rowing Week” from 12 to 21 August.

The preparations went well, right up to the test events held on 27 and 28 June 1914. But on Sunday 28 June in Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the successor to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated, which ultimately led to the start of the First World War.

IOC / Berlin 

Because of the conflict, the Games could not be held in Berlin. During the war, Coubertin moved the IOC headquarters to Lausanne but maintained the order of the Olympiads, with 1916-1920 corresponding to the VI Olympiad. For its part, the Grunewald sports complex was later demolished, and the Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Games, which still exists today after being renovated, was built on the same site.

Tokyo and Sapporo, 1940

In the same way that Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Games in 2013, after the devastating tsunami in March 2011, the Japanese capital was a candidate for the 1940 edition, citing the chance the Games offered to rebuild after a terrible earthquake (the Great Kantō earthquake) in 1923. The candidature was led by the legendary Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and Japan’s first IOC member. The city was chosen at the 36th IOC Session in Berlin in 1936.

IOC / Professor Jigoro Kano

The Games were also supposed to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the coronation of Jimmu, who according to legend was Japan’s first emperor, but they were quickly threatened by the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. And so, on 16 July 1938, Japanese IOC member Togukawa Soyeshima wrote to IOC President Comte de Baillet-Latour, explaining: “We regret that the prolonged hostilities, with no prospect of immediate peace, will mean the cancellation of the Games in Tokyo.” Japan also gave up the idea of staging the Winter Games, scheduled to be held in Sapporo, on the northernmost island of the archipelago, Hokkaido.

IOC / Tokyo 1940

The IOC then chose Helsinki as the host of the 1940 Summer Games, with the Winter Games going to St Moritz, but subsequently decided to hold the latter in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. But this too became impossible following the start of the Second World War in 1939.

IOC / Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1940 

Tokyo finally became the first Asian city to stage the Olympic Games in 1964, with Sapporo hosting the Winter Games in 1972.

London and Cortina d'Ampezzo, 1944

The 39th IOC Session was held in London in June 1939, with the sound of Nazi boots already resounding across Europe; but the war did not start until 1 September, when the forces of the Third Reich invaded Poland. London had been chosen to stage the Games in 1944, ahead of Rome (Italy), Detroit (USA) and Lausanne (Switzerland). But like France, Great Britain joined the war against Germany less than three months later. The global conflict that would leave the continent in ruins would not end until 1945 with Japan’s surrender. The 1944 Winter Games, meanwhile, were to have been held in Cortina d'Ampezzo.

Finally, London would host the Summer Games for the second time 40 years after the first occasion in 1908, and three years after the war. The 1948 Games were held in a British capital still scarred by the German bombardments, and would be known as the “Austerity Games”.

IOC / London 1948

They were held without Germany or Japan, but offered a ray of hope to a world trying to rebuild. The Winter Games then returned to St Moritz in 1948, before being held in Oslo in 1952 and Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956.

IOC / Cortina 1956
Munich 1972

On one occasion, the Games were not postponed but suspended. During the Summer Games in Munich in 1972, on the morning of 5 September a Palestinian terrorist group burst into the Israeli housing in the Olympic Village and took hostages. This drama, which cost the lives of 11 Israeli athletes, coaches, judges and referees and one West-German policeman, led to the Games being halted for 34 hours. On the following day, a ceremony was held in the Olympic Stadium in memory of the innocent victims, in front of about 80,000 spectators, and the Funeral March from Beethoven’s third symphony was played. The IOC President, Avery Brundage, then announced: “The Games must go on.” The international sports movement refused to capitulate to terrorism, and the Olympic spirit, with its notions of peace, sharing and unity, took over. The Games and after that, security would always be a priority at the Games, especially in terms of protecting the Olympic Village. 

Getty Images / Munich 1972