Put on hold, yet to hold on

In 1936, the Games of the XII Olympiad, scheduled for 1940, was assigned to Tōkyō. An important step and symbol, as the event had hitherto only been hosted by European countries and the United States. The candidatures were prepared since 1932, and 12 cities proposed themselves: Alexandria, Barcelona, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Helsinki, Milan, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Tōkyō and Toronto. 

Tōkyō 1940, which would have correlated with the 2,600th anniversary of the legendary establishment of the Japanese Empire by Emperor Jimmu 660 BC and the planned but finally not held Grand International Exhibition of Japan, was seen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as an opportunity to bring the Games more east. For Tōkyō, its Olympic campaign was an occasion to stimulate the economic development through international tourism, notably after the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake that struck the city and levelled major parts to the ground. Though the 1940 bid aroused controversy, and so, the foreseen selection at the 1935 IOC Session in Oslo got postponed and it was only in 1936, after long discussions, that Tōkyō was chosen over Helsinki. Debates about the planning of the 1940 Games gradually expanded, and with the Second Sino-Japanese War, the international community began to threaten to boycott the 1940 Olympics if they were held in Tōkyō. Shortly before the IOC Session was to open in Cairo in March 1938, the British Olympic Committee voted to withdraw from the Games in case that the China Incident continued, followed by the Chinese and the United States Olympic Committees asking for a transfer. 

The situation was quickly deteriorating and on July 15, 1938, the Japanese Minister of Welfare, Cabinet Minister responsible for the Games, Kido Kōichi, informed the National Diet that the government had decided to cancel the 1940 Olympiad. One day later, the Tōkyō Organising Committee agreed on the decision and sent a telegram to the IOC. Although there had been earlier international calls to boycott, the IOC president at the time, Henri de Baillet-Latour, insisted until the last moment that the Games should be held as scheduled and the cancellation was made by Japan itself. As Helsinki had previously agreed to be a host, the Games were assigned to the Finnish capital, which then had roughly two years to get set for the event. Preparations started, though when Great Britain declared war against Germany, the IOC Executive Committee was forced to consider whether the Games should be held allowing only neutral countries to participate or whether they should completely be cancelled. After the scrap of the Winter Games, earlier relocated from Sapporo, Japan, to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (the summer and winter event was held the same year from 1924 to 1992), and the launched attacks from Russia against Finland, the Helsinki Organising Committee voluntarily forfeited. On April 29, 1940, a final decision was made and on May 6, 1940, the IOC announced that the Games of the XII Olympiad, scheduled for September 21 to October 6, 1940, in Tōkyō, and rescheduled for July 20 to August 4, 1940, in Helsinki, would not be held.

Japan’s Minister of Finance Asō Tarō explained that with the cancelled 1940 Games, the mass boycott in Moscow 1980 and now the outbreak of a pandemic threatening Tōkyō 2020, the cursed Olympics was a problem that recurred every 40 years. 

Cursed or not, what first started with vague rumours and presumptions, then continued with sincere discussions, and resulted in actual decisions. As fear over the outbreak of COVID-19 grew, measures around the world were progressively taken, and events widely cancelled or held without audience, rethinking the XXXII Olympiad became unavoidable. For a while, the IOC along with the Tōkyō Organising Committee and the Japanese government affirmed that it was not considering a cancellation or postponement and explained that the situation was to be closely observed until taking any decision in May 2020. Though, when last Monday, March 23, first Canada, followed by Australia declared that they would not participate if the Games were going ahead as planned, and other nations’ sports federations started to share the statement, actions were undertaken within shortly: the same day, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō gave a first hint saying that there may be the possibility to reschedule the Games. One day later, on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, inter alios, Thomas Bach, current president of the IOC, Abe Shinzō, Tōkyō Governor Koike Yuriko, Olympic Minister Hashimoto Seiko and president of the Tōkyō 2020 Organising Committee Mori Yoshirō agreed to postpone the Games, beyond 2020 but no later than summer 2021. Hence, the delay was officially announced without any specific date, yet with the confirmation that the event was to keep being called Tōkyō 2020.

The postponement certainly entails a turn in athletes’ and various individuals’ path of life. Likewise, it urges a wide range of questions for diverse involved parties, all above host city Tōkyō. Rescheduling means delay in post-Games developments and crucial uncertainty for those who have already signed contracts. Facilities such as the recently inaugurated Ariake Arena are meant to shortly after the Games be refurbished, before being given over to private investors. The Athletes Village shall be reconverted into housing that has (partly) already been put on the market… 

Then what with all the booked hotel rooms, the test events, the sold tickets, the volunteers training, the Olympic and Paralympic Education Programme; with the newly hoisted Tōkyō 2020 flags, the posters and panels that decorate the city; the planned logistics, the rescheduled national holidays, the in autumn ending labour contracts… 

The Olympic flame made it to Japan, just in time and without having to quarantine. However, the Torch relay, meant to begin from Fukushima on Thursday, March 26, has, as many other events, been put on hold. The Olympic rings are up, and the mascots Miraitowa and Someity had (despite the outbreak of COVID-19) already bravely started their journey around the world in February 2020. 

Developed over seven years, Tōkyō 2020 is by far more than only a sporting event. 

When on Tuesday evening, after the announcement of the postponement of the Tōkyō Olympiad, emails and cell phone messages started to multiply, I did not only get reminded of the rapidity that news spread with, but also of the high risk of miscommunication, rumours and erroneous information. It took me about a (rather sleepless) night to absorb the energies, process the news and slowly start to realise what is actually happening. Whilst various sporting events have, some for the first time in history (as media like to highlight) been cancelled, Japan has unwittingly made a debut with the Tōkyō 2020 Games the first ever to be postponed. I have repeatedly been asked what this implied for me as a researcher and individual, though I myself have rather been reflecting upon what it entailed for Tōkyō. As both the summer and winter Games are held every four years respectively, host cities tend to get inspiration from their predecessors. Given that there has not been such a postponement before, Tōkyō can hardly get advice for the re-organisation and is facing a new and unprecedented challenge. 

The Japanese capital showed its readiness by impeccable delivering venues in time and carefully undertaking all possible preventive measures. Security and safety scenarios have been prepared and acted out, though the 2020 Games once again show that no matter how well planned and executed, not everything in the organisation of an event is predictably, let alone inevitable, and it seems that COVID-19 found a way to enter Troy. 

Tuesday’s decision was made 122 days before the planned opening ceremony at the newly built National Stadium. Coincidentally, I found myself next to one of the Omega Watches that had been displaying the number of days TO GO until the Games the same evening of March 24, 2020. When seeing the countdown going on, I naively wondered what would happen in case the Games were postponed or cancelled: would the watches just be reset, put on hold, shut down, or moved away ? 

Digits can easily be changed, and the Omega Watches got reverted one day later, on Wednesday, March 25, now showing the day’s date and time, just like any other clock in the city. However, an enormous project like the Olympic and Paralympic Games cannot just be frozen over a longer period. The postponement surely gave some additional time which though is disproportionate to all the new tasks that organisers will have to deal with. 

Let’s recall what may always remain: the Olympics is a permanent race against the clock

Omega Watch at Tōkyō Station, 122 days 0 hours, 30 minutes and 32 seconds until the opening ceremony. 24/03/2020  © Louise Claire Wagner

About the question of the postponements’ impact on my work

I can merely say anything certain at this point, except that there will be new challenges to face, and many unforeseen topics to research on. As before, I see it as my duty and honour to analyse happenings and share my modest knowledge. It stays my deep and sincere wish to closely accompany Tōkyō on this (unexpectedly extended) journey until the end, and beyond.

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