Philip Barker ©ITG

When the Paralympic Games close a week from now in Rio, the Japanese flag will be raised and all eyes will look towards Tokyo. They were doing the same exactly 80 years ago when the Berlin Olympics of 1936 came to an end.

Tokyo had just been chosen to host the Olympic Games in 1940. There were no Paralympics at that time but the expectation was that Japan would host both Summer and Winter Olympics, no small undertaking...

The Japanese had not competed in the Olympics until 1912 but their sportsmen and women had made rapid progress over the next 20 years. They also took part in the 1930 University Games at Darmstadt in Germany and were encouraged to bid for the 1940 Olympic Games.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) members Baron Jigoro Kano, the man who had pioneered the development of judo, and Dr Seiichi Kishi, travelled to Los Angeles in 1932 where they ‘’begged the Committee to award the Games to Tokyo.’’ They hoped 1940 would be the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire and they promised ‘’great festivities and a world exposition’’. They told their fellow IOC members that ‘’the wish of the entire population is that the Games will be celebrated in Tokyo’’.

Japan returned home with seven gold medals from those Los Angeles Games but the two IOC men were looking further ahead. They reported to the Emperor. "The hope is slightly dimmed by the fact that the other cities running as candidates had started their invitation movement about 10 years earlier than Tokyo," they said. "From among these cities Rome seemed the most favourable.’’ As well as the Italian capital, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Helsinki, Budapest, Alexandria, Buenos Aires, Dublin and either Toronto or Montreal were also in the running to host the world in 1940.

The Emperor was told: ‘’The situation for Japan is not an easy one. Yet there is room for optimism. It will need constant efforts should we desire to aaccomplish what we wish.’’

Schoolboy Yasuji Miyazaki was a Japanese swimming star at the 1932 Olympics ©Philip Barker
Schoolboy Yasuji Miyazaki was a Japanese swimming star at the 1932 Olympics ©Philip Barker

In 1935, IOC members Dr Yotaro Sugimura and Count Michimasa Soyeshima made a special journey to Italy to call upon Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. They asked that Rome stand aside for 1940, no doubt with an assurance that Japan would back a Roman bid in 1944.

The Japanese later praised Mussolini’s ‘’generous understanding’’.

Travelling to Japan was a still a major obstacle. "The Russian ambassador in Tokyo had given assurances that his Government would do everything possible to facilitate the journey by the Trans Siberian Railway,’’ said Tokyo’s ‘’Olympic Invitation Committee’’.

They also promised one and a half million yen to help visiting teams with the cost of travel to Japan. "Europe should find time for the journey which the countries outside Europe make at each Olympic Games," suggested Count Soyeshima.

Interest in staging the Games had cooled elsewhere. The decision had been postponed in 1935 and re-scheduled for Berlin in the summer of 1936, by which time only Tokyo, Helsinki and London were in contention. The decision was to be taken at Berlin’s Hotel Adlon shortly before the Games opened. London stood aside and Tokyo received a ringing endorsement from IOC President Count Baillet Latour.

‘’The sporting Olympic spirit has penetrated into all classes of the population,’’ he told his fellow IOC members. "The Youth not only take part in sport but appreciate the moral character that accompanies it. The purely unselfish sporting spirit is manifest.’’

This vote of confidence was enough to convince the membership and Tokyo was chosen as host city.

‘’It was one big Jubilee,’’ claimed organisers later.

Sapporo was later confirmed as the host for the Winter Games. Newspapers from overseas reported ‘’an elaborate scheme on a gigantic scale’’.

Nowadays the IOC establishes a Coordination Commission to monitor progress at any Olympic Games. In 1936, the Japanese had promised to appoint an individual to be based in Japan. The IOC’s man in Tokyo was to be Werner Klingeberg. He came recommended by Carl Diem, the organising genius behind the Berlin Games. Klingeberg had worked for the 1936 Committee as head of the technical department of sport.

Before Klingeberg left Europe, he went to Geneva to visit former IOC President Pierre de Coubertin. Little more than a month before his death, Coubertin remained enthusiastic about Games in the Far East and sent a message for the Japanese. "The task of organising the XII Olympic Games will be the greatest ever given to a country," he said. It would: "combine Hellenism, the most precious civilisation of ancient Europe with the refined culture and art of Asia".

Modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin had been an enthusiastic supporter of Tokyo 1940 ©Wikipedia
Modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin had been an enthusiastic supporter of Tokyo 1940 ©Wikipedia

Yet even before Klingeberg arrived in Japan there were rumours that the Games might be cancelled. The international situation had deteriorated as Japanese troops marched into China. A brutal conflict followed and provided a backdrop to Tokyo preparations.

In the Japanese legislature, there were calls to cancel the Olympics. Within a few months the New York Times described Japanese attitudes to the Games as ‘’undecided’’.

Klingeberg’s journey to Japan had been delayed by a typhoon in Hong Kong but he finally set sail and arrived at Yokohama in late October 1937. He was allocated only a single room in the Organising Committee headquarters, a rather cluttered office in which he worked with two secretaries who had travelled from Europe.

Whatever his personal misgivings, Klingeberg spoke to Japanese English language newspapers in a positive vein, suggesting that the Games would be carried out ‘’in such a way as to combine both an international spirit and the distinctive atmosphere of Japanese civilisation. By demonstrating Japanese spirit, power and culture to the world the Games will promote international understanding’’.

The Organising Committee in Japan described him in equally friendly terms. "Sports federations in Japan have benefitted much under his guidance and found themselves assisted in their progress along many lines," they said. Even at the bidding stage they had admitted privately that ‘’weather conditions in comparison with foreign countries are unfavourable’’.

IOC members initially voted for the Games to take place from the last week of August though this was later changed. The Opening Ceremony was eventually scheduled for 3pm on Saturday, September 21, 1940.

Fencing, wrestling and modern pentathlon were due to be contested on the first morning of competition and athletics was scheduled for the afternoon, starting with heats of the 100 metres. In a reversal of the programme today, swimming was to have taken place in the second week. Handball and canoeing were included only if at least five countries made a commitment to compete.

There were also to be demonstrations in budo, a Japanese martial art, and baseball.

Gliding had been accepted as an Olympic sport, but the IOC pointed out that Tokyo’s organisers ‘’must not feel obliged to put this sport on the programme".

The brutal Japanese invasion of China in 1937 reduced support for a Tokyo Olympics in 1940 ©Wikipedia
The brutal Japanese invasion of China in 1937 reduced support for a Tokyo Olympics in 1940 ©Wikipedia

The organisers had also made tentative plans for an Olympic Torch Relay. One idea was to take the flame by sea from Athens to Syria and then across land through Baghdad, Tehran, Kabul through to Northern India, China and Korea, then under Japanese occupation. "Steamers, automobiles and airplanes would be utilised‘’ until the Torch reached the port of Moji, from where the Relay would have been continued on foot.

“Much would have been gained in diffusing the Olympic spirit in the districts where as yet, the knowledge of the Olympic Movement is very scanty,’’ claimed officials. There was also a note that ‘’the IOC asked the Organising Committee to observe the rule of providing special seats, entirely segregated for the sole use of the IOC members".

Behind the polite language and positive news, Klingeberg discovered an Organising Committee with more than a few problems. His visit to one of the sports stadiums found it in very poor repair. The original plan for the main stadium was to enlarge an arena at the Meiji Shrine but local objections left them desperate to find an alternative site.

There were also personality clashes within the organisers.The former Japanese Ambassador to Germany, Matsuzo Nagai, was parachuted in as organising secretary, apparently to the irritation of IOC member Soyeshima. The Olympic officials were in any case at odds with military elements in the Government. Even so, the names of General Tojo and Admiral Yamamoto were both listed as members of the Olympic Organising Committee. In what was still a very traditional society in thrall to the Emperor, there were some who even baulked at the prospect of hearing the Imperial voice open the Games.

Another more practical problem was the traffic flow in Tokyo. There was no mention of ‘’Olympic Lanes’’ in those days but one way streets were thought to be essential. Eventually 10 million yen was set aside for the improvement of roads around the stadium but the pressure of funding military expansion took a toll on the Olympic budget.

Japan Olympic Committee official Takashi Goh issued a statement on what he euphemistically called ‘’The China Incident.’’ It was aimed at those who felt the Tokyo Games might be abandoned. ‘’The preparations for the Games are as we have repeatedly stated, making rapid progress," he said. "It is true that in view of the incident plans for the construction of the stadium have had to be modified.’’

Goh’s was a masterpiece of "spin" for steel was already in short supply for the construction of the venues.

One thing was being said in public, but, by early 1938, Soyeshima had written in confidence to Baillet Latour to hint at handing the Games back. At a media conference, the IOC President stoically insisted "the Tokyo Games will and must go on".

Tokyo City Hall telegraphed the IOC to assure them that ‘’the citizens of Tokyo are doing their utmost to make the 1940 Games a success’’ as the odds stacked against them.

To stoke the fire, Herbert Pash, a prominent official of the Amateur Athletic Association in England, suggested that sportsmen and women in Britain and what he called other ‘’civilised countries’’ such as America and Scandinavia would have little stomach for Games in Japan. ‘’The Olympic Games have come to be regarded as a gigantic advertisement for the promoting country. Some competitors are trained at public expense to maintain the national rather than the sporting reputation of their country," he fumed.

That spring, the IOC met on a steamship on the Nile. The IOC President read a telegram sent by CT Wang, the IOC member in China, asking that the Games be moved from Tokyo. The official minutes recorded that "the text of the Olympic Charter contains nothing which would permit such a decision".

The IOC initially defended their choice of host during a meeting on a River Nile steamship ©Wikipedia
The IOC initially defended their choice of host during a meeting on a River Nile steamship ©Wikipedia

Even so he still felt the need ‘’to caution Japan, putting her on her guard as to the seriousness of the situation. If between now and then the hostilities in China were not ended, he advised Japan in her own interests to renounce the celebration of these Games".

Although the IOC had refused to force the hand of the Japanese, the planned exposition to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Imperial dynasties seemed to be a potential tipping point. The IOC demanded assurances that this would not encroach on the Olympic Games period.

Publicly at least, Baillet Latour clung on to the hope that Tokyo would still be able to organise the 1940 Games. He sent this message to the Japanese people: ‘’The IOC, honouring its Charter, has not believed itself called upon to examine the proposal as to whether the decision reached in Berlin in 1936 should be changed because it is firmly convinced that Tokyo and Sapporo [remain] strong in the unanimous support of the nation and [in] the Government desire to celebrate the Games in 1940 and in accordance with the regulations these Games cannot be taken from them.’’

The omens did not improve. Kano, who had been a supporter of the Games from the outset, died on board ship as he returned home. His coffin was draped in the Olympic Flag as it was ceremonially brought ashore at Yokohama.

By June, newspapers were reporting with some certainty that the Games were unlikely to proceed. In mid July, the IOC were forced to accept the inevitable when Baillet Latour received a sad telegram from Count Soyeshima. It read: "WE REGRET THAT OWING TO PROTRACTED HOSTILITIES WITH NO PROSPECT OF IMMEDIATE PEACE WE HAVE DECIDED TO CANCEL THE TOKYO AND SAPPORO GAMES. WE INTEND TO APPLY FOR 1944 GAMES".

Baillet Latour called the decision ‘’The right step". 

"By doing so you have proved you have the Olympic spirit," he said. "You realise that the Olympic Games is not a national business or propaganda but a very important ceremony with a definite object".

The Japanese sports officials tried to strike an optimistic note in the official report, claiming ‘’the conflict will terminate in time and peace and amity will again be restored".

The American Avery Brundage, later to become IOC President, was equally positive. "I am sure there will be another opportunity to stage the Olympic Games in Tokyo and in the meantime that the friendly relationships between the sportsmen of Nippon and United States will continued unimpaired".

For the time being, though Helsinki and St Moritz were swiftly given the task of staging the 1940 Games but this was soon abandoned as war engulfed Europe.

As one of the defeated powers in the war, Japan was excluded when the 1948 Games were held in London. The Games were finally awarded to Tokyo again in 1964. It was Brundage, by then IOC President, who invited Emperor Hirohito to open them. The Flame was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, a teenager born the day the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.