Since the opening of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the international sports competition has only been canceled three times: once during World War I (1916) and twice during World War II (1940, 1944). Until the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, which postponed the Summer Olympic games for a year, the Olympics weathered politically charged boycotts and two separate terrorist attacks without being canceled or postponed during peacetime.
The 1916 Olympics were supposed to be hosted by the German Empire, which had built an impressive 30,000-seat stadium in Berlin for the event. But with the outbreak of war in 1914, and the eventual involvement of so many nations who sent athletes to the Olympics, the 1916 games were scrapped.
1920: Germany Disinvited
The 1920 games in Antwerp, Belgium were the first in which a nation was actively disinvited. Germany was blamed for starting World War I, and even though the country was under a new government—known as the Weimar Republic—Belgian, and later French Olympic officials banned German athletes from participating in both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics.
Twenty years after the canceled 1916 games, Germany was again due to host the Olympics in 1936, this time under the Nazi flag. In America, a coalition of Jewish and Catholic groups called on the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the games, but was ignored by the committee president Avery Brundage, a professed Germanophile.
Instead, the 1936 Berlin Games were allowed to go on amid a Nazi regime intent on using sport to demonstrate Adolf Hitler’s theories of racial superiority. Jesse Owens, the African American track and field star, famously proved Hitler wrong, taking home four gold medals. In a lesser-known victory, India’s underdog field hockey team also crushed the Germans 8-1 in the men’s final.
World War II Leads to Two Olympic Game Cancellations
The last time the Olympics were canceled was during World War II. The 1940 summer and winter Olympics were both scheduled to be held in Japan, the first non-Western country to host the games, but Japan forfeited its rights in 1937 when it went to war with China. The 1940 games were initially rebooked for Helsinki, Finland in the summer and the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the winter, but finally canceled in 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
London was supposed to host the 1944 summer Olympics, but those were summarily canceled due to the ongoing war. Same for the 1944 winter games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. London eventually hosted the 1948 games, but banned German and Japanese athletes from participation.
Since its inception in 1894, the IOC has claimed to be an apolitical and neutral body with the mission to promote international peace and understanding through sport. But critics like David Goldblatt, professor of history at Pitzer College and author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, point to numerous times when Olympic officials turned a blind eye to violent human rights violations in order to ensure that the games went on.
Games Continued in Mexico City Despite Massacre
Mexico City is a particularly damning example. Ten days before the 1968 summer games were set to open in Mexico City, government forces opened fire on crowds of unarmed student protestors, killing hundreds if not thousands in what became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre.
“The main theme of the Mexico City games was peace with icons of the dove of peace all over the city,” says Goldblatt. “The Mexican government slaughters hundreds of students and then unleashes a reign of terror and torture and disappearance, all while the games are going on, but the IOC doesn’t blink an eye.”
Likewise, the IOC was initially hesitant to ban Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1960 Olympics, but eventually bowed to the pressure of African nations who said they would boycott the games if whites-only South African teams were allowed to play. South Africa was eventually barred from the Olympics from 1960 until 1992, after the fall of Apartheid.
Terrorism and the Olympic Games
Even one of the darkest chapters of Olympic history didn’t lead to a cancellation of the games. In 1972, an armed band of Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli compound at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, killing two Israeli athletes and holding another nine hostage. In the ensuing standoff, all nine remaining Israeli athletes were murdered. Instead of calling off the Munich games, Olympic officials continued the competition after a two-day suspension.
The 1996 summer games in Atlanta, Georgia, were also allowed to go on after a homemade bomb exploded during a free concert in Centennial Olympic Park. Two people died in the early-morning blast and more than a hundred were injured, but only a few hours later, the president of Atlanta’s Olympic organizing committee said, "The spirit of the Olympic movement mandates that we continue."