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A Tale of Three Wars and the Olympic Games that Never Were

On March 17th, 1938, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) convened in Cairo to discuss a matter of the utmost urgency. Two years earlier, in an attempt to drag organised sport into the twentieth century, its members had chosen a non-Western city, Tokyo, to host the 1940 Olympic Games. That decision was initially hailed as a triumph of reason and tolerance over provincialism and bigotry. But when Japanese forces mounted a full-scale invasion of mainland China in the summer of 1937, it began to look more and more like a colossal mistake—a detail that was not lost on the IOC’s various national affiliates. As the situation in South-East Asia continued to deteriorate, the isolated mumblings of a few malcontents quickly morphed into a raucous chorus of protestation. At the gathering in Egypt, the British and French delegates openly threatened to boycott the Tokyo Games should Japan refuse to abandon its Chinese (mis)adventure. Their American counterparts, meanwhile, made a point of questioning whether it was logistically possible for a warring nation to stage the biggest event on Earth.

All of this left the IOC president, Henri de Baillet-Latour, in a very awkward position. If he moved to take the games away from Tokyo, he might well end-up provoking some kind of minor international crisis. If, on the other hand, he simply ignored the naysayers and pushed ahead with the existing agenda, he ran the risk of splitting the Olympic Movement straight down the middle. Faced with such a disagreeable choice, the aristocratic Belgian played it safe during the meeting by making ambiguous promises to both sides in the hope that the predicament would resolve itself and absolve him of any responsibility in the process.

Somewhat fortuitously—and, one might say, fortunately—the Japanese government soon granted Baillet-Latour his wish. In a statement delivered in July, the Welfare Minister, Koichi Kido, announced that the 1940 Games would no longer be held in Tokyo due to the country’s need to conserve resources for the struggle on the continent. Wasting no time—and by this point there really was no time to waste—the IOC awarded the Games to Helsinki, a city which was seen as a safe bet by the increasingly exasperated functionaries housed at the organisation’s headquarters in the scenic Swiss town of Lausanne.

This new arrangement was, on the whole, greeted with enthusiasm in Finland. Granted, there was a certain amount of trepidation about the potential strain that the Olympics might place on such a finely balanced economy. The final bill for the Games was expected to end up somewhere in the region of 250 million Finnish Marks (or $5 million), most of which would be spent on expanding and updating the nation’s infrastructure and doubling the capacity of the recently constructed Helsingen Stadion.

Still, the vast majority of Finns were not particularly fazed by hard toil, eye-watering sums, or tight deadlines. After all, they had good form when it came to navigating seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Since declaring independence from Russia in December 1917, Finland had managed to pull through a bloody civil war, settle all its foreign debts, escape the clutches of revanchist neighbours, and establish a healthy democracy blessed with persistently low unemployment.

Holding the Twelfth Olympiad was viewed by many as a fitting way to celebrate and broadcast these achievements. Even the looming spectre of another major European war and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin did little to dampen Finnish spirits. Politicians and the public alike tended to share the opinion of the Social Democratic Party’s enforcer-in-chief, Väinö Tanner, who declared in a letter written in mid-1939: “I do not believe that there will be a war; the world cannot be so senseless.”

Needless to say, such optimism was misplaced. On August 23rd, the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his German doppelganger, Joachim von Ribbentrop, put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons by signing a mutual non-aggression pact. On September 1st, Germany proceeded to invade Poland. Britain and France immediately dispatched ultimatums to Berlin and, upon receiving no reply, declared war two days later. To all intents and purposes, the outbreak of hostilities in Europe put an end to Finland’s Olympic ambitions.

Although decision-makers in Helsinki were naturally disappointed by this turn of events, they were also shrewd enough to recognise that there were much bigger problems lurking over the horizon. The strategic balance in the Baltic and Northern Europe had tilted in the Soviet Union’s favour practically overnight. Throughout October, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure on Prime Minster Aimo Cajander and his administration, demanding, amongst other things, a dramatic revision of the Fenno-Russian frontier near Leningrad and generous basing rights in and around the Gulf of Finland. The Finns stubbornly refused to yield, partly because they were convinced of their own rectitude, and partly because they had witnessed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia give in to Moscow’s claims only to be asked to make further concessions.

Alas, patience was not a virtue that Joseph Stalin possessed in abundance. Having failed to find a satisfactory political solution to the Finskii vopros, the Soviet government brusquely broke off negotiations in the middle of November. On the 30th, the Red Army launched a major offensive against Finnish forces stationed on the Karelian Isthmus. Over the next eighty or so days, the Finns defied all expectations by halting—and in some cases, pushing back—the Soviet advance. The plight of ‘plucky little Finland’ became something of a cause célèbre in the West, if for no other reason than it provided a welcome distraction from the tedium of the ‘Phoney War’. So great was the opprobrium in cabinet offices and drawing rooms that the League of Nations temporarily awakened from its slumber to expel the Soviet Union. And by January, legislators on both sides of the Channel were beginning to contemplate an armed intervention.

In the end, though, Finnish determination and international censure proved to be no match for Russian mass. In early-March, 1940, both sides agreed to sit down around the bargaining table. While the resulting Moscow Peace Treaty stripped Finland of a tenth of its territory and forced it to cede a naval base at Hanko Cape, it was still a small miracle. A nation of just four million people had managed to thwart the designs of one of the most powerful states on the planet.

But the celebrations were short lived. The next five years were not kind to Finland, or anyone else for that matter. As Finnish leaders did their best to contend with the fallout from the so-called Winter War—fighting with the Germans against the Soviets in the Continuation War (1941-1944) and against the Germans in the Lapland War (1944-1945)—the situation in Europe and the Far-East spiraled out of control.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that in August 1944 the IOC celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in the shadow of yet another aborted Olympiad. In the aftermath of the war, however, a semblance of normality began to return to the sporting world. In 1948, London played host to the first Olympic Games in twelve years. And four years later, in 1952, the Olympic torch finally made its way to Helsinki.


Feature image source: Wikimedia Commons

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James A. Chisem is an editor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live. ...more →

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5 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Wars and the Olympic Games that Never Were

  1. Drunk, I read this hoping to find something to criticize but, instead, I found something that made me do more research and say “man, I hope this guy writes more”.

    Man. I hope this guy writes more.

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