5 Times the Olympic Games Were Canceled (& 7 Times They Nearly Were)

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The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, and, since then, the Olympics have been held consistently with few exceptions. For many, the Olympic Games are a time for nations to put their differences aside and celebrate the success of their country’s most successful athletes. Sure, there are bragging rights and world records that come along with the Olympics, but the games are also an opportunity for one lucky city to host a global presence for several weeks in the summer or winter.

A lot of time and resources are spent preparing for the Olympics. Athletes spend a lifetime training and competing. Opening ceremonies require choreographing and intense planning. In most cases, entire stadiums need to be built, so the process often starts years before the event. Perhaps because of this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) holds a theatrical mindset when it comes to their Olympic Games. For the IOC, the show must go on.

Most recently, the Bejing 2022 Olympics were met with diplomatic boycotts and calls for cancellation due to the Chinese government’s politics. The games also saw criticism for going on as planned despite high numbers of COVID-19 due to the Omicron variant. The games went on despite the blowback.

This is not the first instance of Olympics-related drama. In fact, The Olympics have been canceled before. Here’s we’re looking back at the five times that the Olympics were canceled. We also recall six times the Olympics could have been canceled due to other circumstances surrounding them.

5 Times the Olympic Games Were Canceled

It takes a lot to cancel the Olympic Games. While there are sometimes delays for specific events due to inclement weather, especially during the Winter Olympics, it takes global conflicts to put an end to all of that hard work. In more than 125 years, the Olympic Games have only been canceled a handful of times.

Scheduled for 1916, Berlin’s Olympics were the first to be canceled. The Games had only been around for 20 years at that point, so maybe tradition wasn’t pressuring anyone to make the Games happen. World War I was the main reason these Olympics were canceled. The games did return to Berlin in 1936, but we’ll get back to that controversy in a bit.

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All four other instances of canceled Olympic Games happened during World War II. Did you know that they used to have the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year? In 1940, the Winter Olympics were the first to be canceled. The Games were supposed to take place in Sapporo, Japan. The location of the Games was moved to St. Moritz, Switzerland, due to the Second Sino-Japanese War, and later the Games were moved to Germany until the host country invaded Poland, which, of course, led to a cancellation. Sapporo, Japan eventually hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, making Sapporo the first Asian city to host the Winter Games.

Later that year, the Summer Olympics were canceled. The 1940 Olympics were, coincidentally, supposed to take place in Tokyo, Japan. For the same reason as Sapporo, the 1940 Winter Olympics were moved from Tokyo to Finland until the onset of World War II. The conflicts were just beginning, but the IOC got it right this time by canceling the games.

By the year 1944, everyone was at war. The United States had even gotten involved after the attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the European Allied Forces with the Invasion of Normandy. The 1944 Summer Games were going to be in London, which went on to host the 1948 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, the 1944 Winter Games would have been in Cortina d’Ampezzo, which went on to host the 1956 Winter Olympics and is set to co-host the 2026 Olympics with Milan.

The 1944 Olympics are a curious case because they were canceled in 1941. The IOC had the foresight to know that the world may be in conflict for a long time. The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing and while there is light at the end of the tunnel, there’s still no end in sight. Maybe Thomas Bach won’t listen to the people of Tokyo, but maybe he can look to these instances in history where the Olympics were canceled for the greater good.

7 Times the Olympics Could (or Should) Have Been Canceled

There have been a few other Olympic Games that justifiably could — or should — have been canceled. The 1920 Olympics, for example, occurred at the tail end of the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Held in Belgium, the Games saw over 2,000 athletes converging for one of the first modern Olympic Games. Just thinking about all of those people gathering together after seeing photos of the so-called “Spanish Flu” from history books can induce anxiety. Historians claim that the pandemic ended in April of 1920 and the Games were held in August… but still.

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As mentioned earlier, the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rule, so many refer to this as the “Nazi Olympics.” Many historians agree that the Holocaust started in 1933, so the IOC chose to go forward with the Games despite the ongoing genocide of Jewish people and other marginalized individuals. Disturbingly, the IOC’s decision to carry on with the Games allowed Hitler to promote his white supremacy, antisemitism and more; not only were German Jewish athletes barred from the Games, but the 1936 Olympics were the first to be televised.

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In Mexico City, the 1968 Olympics could have been canceled due to the militant activity happening there,. A part of the larger Mexican Dirty War (the theater of war in Mexico that stemmed from the Cold War), the Tlatelolco Massacre occurred just 10 days before the 1968 Summer Olympics. Nearly 10,000 people had protested the government and the Mexican military opened fire on the protesters well into the night. There were over 1,000 arrests. The death toll is unknown but is estimated to be somewhere between 300 to 400 people.

The 1972 Munich Olympics were postponed due to conflicts between Israel and Palestine, which remain ongoing to this day. In what originally started out as a hostage situation, the lives of nine Israeli people, five Palestinian people, and one German person were lost amid this violence. The Olympic Games were only postponed for 36 hours.

In Atlanta, Georgia, the 1996 Olympic Games were attacked outright. Over 100 people were injured and two people died when a bomb went off at the Olympic Village, a hub area for athletes, locals, and tourists to gather together and celebrate the convergence of the Olympic Games. Thankfully, the pipe bomb was found before it exploded, so the damage was minimized. The bombing was committed by Eric Rudolph, who also bombed two abortion clinics and one gay nightclub.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics became the 2021 Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With cases of COVID-19 variants on the rise along — athletes and showrunners have already tested positive for the virus — many people,  especially residents of Tokyo and Japan are calling for the cancellation or further postponement of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The New York Times reported that 83% of Tokyo residents didn’t even want to host the Olympics at this point.

Ultimately, the IOC will do all they can to keep the Olympic tradition going. Canceled Olympics hurt the committee’s credibility and finances short-term and long. It would be ideal for the IOC to listen to the participants and residents, Olympic Games have so many moving parts that they can’t be stopped.

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