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Looking back on instances of Olympic cancellations and controversy

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Last month, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, and Japan decided to postpone the Summer Olympics from its start date of July 2020 to July 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Tokyo Olympics would not be canceled, just postponed.

This week, however, Japan Medical Association chief Yoshitake Yokokura said it would be difficult to host next year’s Olympics without an effective vaccine, prompting discussion on the status of the 2021 Olympics. Despite Abe’s previous commitment to hosting the games, Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori said that if coronavirus concerns are to persist next year, the Olympics will be canceled, not postponed a second time.

Since its birth in 1896, the Olympics have only been canceled three times and all were in times of war. Mori, like many leaders across the world, has compared the world’s current state to wartime, with COVID-19 being the unseen enemy.

Here are some of the times that the Olympics Games have been disrupted — where games have been canceled, nations have been banned and games have been overshadowed by backlash:

1. Berlin 1916 Summer Olympics: Games are canceled
In 1913, the German Empire built a 30,000 person stadium, but the onset of World War I in 1914 prompted the cancellation of the games. Germany got another chance to host in 1936, when it replaced the 30,000 person stadium with its new Olympic Stadium. The controversy would arise again, however.

2. Antwerp 1920 Summer Olympics: A nation is actively disinvited
Germany was blamed for starting World War I and was uninvited from the Olympics as a consequence. It was the first time a country was actively disinvited but it wouldn’t be the last. German athletes were barred from participating in the 1924 Olympics as well.

3. Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics: American groups protest
With Adolf Hitler in power, Germany was set to host the Olympics under the Nazi flag, prompting urges for the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the games. Yet the games continued as planned. Notably, Jesse Owens, a Black athlete, took home four gold medals for the United States.

4. Tokyo 1940 Summer Olympics: Games are rebooked and later canceled
Japan was set to be the first non-Western country to host the Olympics, but after going to war with China, the games were rebooked for Helsinki, Finland. Upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, they were abruptly canceled with only a year’s notice.

5. Sapporo 1940 Winter Olympics: Games are rebooked and later canceled
The Japanese had planned to host both the summer and winter games. But the conflict with China meant both games were moved. The winter games were rebooked for Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany but were canceled like the summer games upon the 1939 invasion of Poland.

6. London 1944 Summer Olympics: Games are canceled
Due to World War II, the London games were canceled.

7. Cortina d’Ampezzo 1944 Winter Olympics: Games are canceled
The winter games in Italy were also called off because of World War II.

8. London 1948 Summer Olympics: Two nations are banned
After a 12-year absence of the Olympics, London got another opportunity to host with the 1948 games — the first Olympics to be held following the war — but both German and Japanese athletes were banned from participating. Still recovering from the war, conditions weren’t the same and athletes stayed in military barracks, schools and hostels.

9. Rome 1960 Summer Olympics: South Africa is banned for the first time
African nations threatened to boycott the 1960 games if South Africa’s white-only teams were allowed to compete. Their action prompted the IOC to ban South Africa from the Olympics between 1960 and 1992, until after the fall of apartheid.

10. Mexico City 1968 Summer Olympics: Games occur amid violence
The Tlatelolco Massacre occurred just 10 days before the opening of the games. The Mexican army and police officers opened fire on unarmed students who were protesting repression and violence by the police forces. There were between four and 3,000 civilian casualties. Games continued as planned, however.

11. Munich 1972 Summer Olympics: Games occur amid violence
Two Israeli athletes were killed. Later, nine more were held hostage and eventually killed by armed terrorists who attacked the Israeli compound at the Olympic Village. The games were suspended for two days and then proceeded to continue. The Israeli team, however, withdrew from the games.

12. Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics: Games occur amid violence
In the bombing at the Centennial Olympic Park, more than 100 people were wounded and two died. Hours later, it was announced the Olympics would continue.

With relative uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, the status of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics is still up in the air. While the games have continued despite unusual and sometimes controversial circumstances in previous years, Olympic history has also witnessed the cancellation of events in some years due to war. Although it’s unclear what direction the 2021 Tokyo Games will move in, it’s certain that the Tokyo Olympics will be recorded as one of the Olympics that had to adapt to external events.

Surina Khurana is a sports columnist. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.

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