Has the Olympics Ever Been Canceled or Postponed Before?

The 2020 Olympics are the latest competition to be torn apart by the coronavirus pandemic. The games have been postponed to a much later date in hopes that the virus will be under control. It’s a big loss to the sporting calendar, but this is not the first time the Olympics have been rearranged by major world events. They’ve been canceled or postponed three times before. Here are the details.

COVID-19 cancels the 2020 Summer Olympics

The decision was inevitable, even if the decision-makers took their time to announce it. The spread of the coronavirus has brought society to a halt. Slowly but surely, sports leagues across the world have succumbed to the pandemic. The NBA suspended its season, but only after Rudy Gobert tested positive.

European soccer leagues that initially kept fans out as a half-measure stopped entirely once the situations became untenable in their own countries. (Although not before a “biological bomb” of a game took place and made things worse for Italy and Spain.)

As fears over the potential loss of money worsen, MLB and other organizations have discussed bizarre ways to return to the field as quickly as possible. But what these proposals show is that it’ll be a long time before any sports can take place under normal circumstances. 

All of this explains why the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until 2021 — although they will still officially be known as the 2020 Olympics. A growing group hopes they scrap the Games entirely. But the majority will still miss the event. It will be a big blow to Japan’s economy as well as the athletes. But moving forward was never an option.

The 1916 Summer Olympics

Every time the Olympics got canceled or postponed, it was for the same reason: the looming worries of a world war.

In 1912, Berlin won the bid to host the games over Alexandria, Amsterdam, Brussels, Budapest, and Cleveland. Work on a new national stadium, cleverly titled “German Stadium,” that could seat 30,000 people began in 1913. But preparations for the Olympics quickly took a backseat to the start of World War I in 1914.

Either in a fit of extreme optimism or plain stupidity, Olympic organizers thought the war would be done by Christmas. But as conflict raged until 1918, they canceled their plans. The city tore down the German Stadium a few years later. Berlin got its Olympics in 1936, but politics still affected the proceedings. By the time the games took place, Adolf Hitler was leading Germany.

History repeats itself in 1940 and ’44

View of a ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in 1948
A ceremony at an Olympic stadium in 1948 | William Sumits/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Tokyo and Sapporo, Japan became the first non-Western cities to host the Summer and Winter games in 1936. But war stopped the plans from moving forward. The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out between Japan and China the following year, lasting until 1945. With more serious things to worry about, the Japanese government forfeited their right to host the Olympics, believing the war required “the spiritual and material mobilization of Japan.”

The Summer Games’ substitute host city became Helsinki, Finland; the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen was chosen for winter. But those plans folded as the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, kickstarting World War II. Cities received host designations for the ’44 games — London for the summer, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy for the winter — but the Olympics never happened for obvious reasons. 

The Olympics returned in 1948 in London. Society still hadn’t recovered from the preceding decade of battle. Resources were rationed and the athletes lived in military barracks, schools, and hostels during the competition. Those conditions didn’t stop 59 nations and 4,000 athletes from participating. Their national pride and love for sport motivated them to make the trip. The same is probably true today.