Throwback Thursday: What Does It Take To Move The Olympics?

The Brazilian Olympics probably shouldn't have happened. What does it take to get them moved?

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Sep 1 2016, 3:00pm

Wada Sanzō, Wikimedia Commons

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

What does it take to get an Olympics moved? It's a question I asked myself a number of times as Brazil prepared for and then hosted the 31st Olympic Games in Rio. The cost of the Games and the country's political situation resulted in an event that, by any reasonable human or economic measure, should have been held somewhere else. But that's not what happened.

The IOC has canceled the Olympics a total of three times—in 1916, due to World War I; and in 1940 and 1944, as a result of World War II—but they've been moved just once. Before the IOC called off the 1940 Games, it voted to change venue from Tokyo, Japan to Helsinki, Finland, a decision that was made official in 1938, 78 years ago this week.

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With preparation for the 1936 Berlin Games well underway, the IOC met in Oslo, Norway, in February of 1935 to select the host for the 1940 Olympics. The gathering was contentious. Japan and Italy already had been selected as finalists, and prior to the meeting, the Italians had promised the Japanese delegation that they would withdraw. Japan would then vote for Italy to host the 1944 Games, and the trifecta of Axis Power Olympics would be complete.

Problem was, the Italians went back on their promise once the meeting began, chalking the whole thing up to a misunderstanding. As such, the IOC looked for a compromise. It postponed its decision for one month, and members began discussing the possibility of choosing a neutral third location—Helsinki—as a way for Italy and Japan to save mutual face. The one month postponement became a year. The IOC kept delaying. Italy officially withdrew. Finland became an official candidate.

When the IOC finally voted, on July 31st, 1936, it selected Japan over Finland, 36-27. The decision was momentous. Following the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, the IOC had been under pressure to keep the Games in Europe: the long boat ride to Southern California was still on the minds of some European delegates. No matter. In Japan, the IOC had selected a destination even farther away than L.A., largely because it had begun to see itself as a truly global organization.

"The Olympic Flag consists of a white background with five interlocking circles representing the world's five great continents," wrote Arthur J. Daily in a New York Times article announcing the decision. "Two of them, Europe and North America, have been the scene of all the past Olympics. The theory is that eventually the Olympic Torch will be carried around the world and that some day every continent will have been the site of at least one set of Games." (Eighty-one years later, Africa has yet to host a Games.)

Japanese tailors make Olympic flags. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Had the IOC considered the political situations in Helsinki and Tokyo, the Games would have almost certainly gone to Finland. Months before the vote even took place, a failed coup shook Japan. Members of the military used the failed coup as a pretext for exerting more power over the government, one of many steps toward militarization that Japan would make over the next half-decade, culminating in Pearl Harbor and WWII.

Prior to the IOC vote, Daily asked IOC President Count Henri de Baillet-Latour if the attempted coup would affect the IOC's decision. In a line that sports officials have gone on to repeat countless times over the following decades, Baillet-Latour said, "I have nothing to do with politics."

The idea that an IOC president would and could stick to sports is ridiculous today, and was recklessly absurd even in the 1930s. By then, the Games had evolved into a propagandist's dream, something that became undeniable at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Those Games were used by Hitler to stoke nationalist fervor and to showcase the supposed superiority of the "German race."

This did not go unnoticed by the Japanese. "After the sensation of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, the Japanese state incorporated many of Germany's techniques for using sports as a power apparatus in nation-building," wrote historian Sandra Collins in her 2007 book, The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics, Japan, The Asian Olympics and The Olympic Movement. A number of influential Nazi texts about physical education were immediately translated. "Sports and physical education became key components of the National Mobilization Project initiated by the state in December 1937."

By that time, Japan had already began its aggressive military expansion across Asia, launching the Second Sino-Japanese War months earlier. Over time, Collins told VICE Sports, "there was a boycott movement against Tokyo, both by Sweden and London. There was a lot of, I guess you would call it backlash against the IOC for having them in Asia. One, because of cost, and another because of the escalating military aggression that Japan was expressing in Asia."

According to records Collins discovered in the IOC archives, the organization developed a secret contingency plan in March, 1938. If Japan backed out of hosting the Olympics, IOC decision-makers agreed to award the Games to Helsinki. And that's exactly what happened. The Japanese government decided to abandon the Games in July of 1938—not because of boycott pressure, and certainly not because of any supposed Olympic ideals such as world peace and global brotherhood through athletics.

"As the war with Asia and mostly China escalated and the Japanese government became a little bit more fascist and was controlled more and more by the army, they had difficulty actually realizing the Olympic Games, in terms of budgets but also materials," Collins said. "In the end, it came down to the decision of, are they going to use steel for the stadiums, to do all the reinforced concrete and whatnot? Or are they going to use this steel to build war machinery, both in terms of ships and planes?"

Battleship Yamato, Japan's flagship. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Had Japan not backed out, it seems likely the Games would have gone ahead as planned. Baillet-Latour never wavered from his apolitical position, even as the situation in Asia became increasingly grim. His stance was shared by number of other IOC officials, including United States Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage. "Whether our Committee or athletes like or dislike Japan's military policy is beside the point," Brundage told the Associated Press in early 1938. "Our only concern is to be sure that Japan is able ... The association's position has been consistent on the point that sports transcends all political or racial considerations."

Harvard University athletic director William J. Bingham was one of the few sports officials who spoke out against holding the Games in Japan, telling the AP in early 1938 that he was "sorry that those in charge are awarding the contests to aggressor nations whose governments do not recognize public morality or national honor."

"Those nations," he said, "and especially Germany in 1936, use the Games as a symbol of national power and glory. They are spoiling the purpose for which the Games were revived."

On August 31st, 1938, the IOC voted to officially give the Games to Helsinki. What does it take to get the Games moved? Forget principles. Never mind purpose. What it really takes—the only thing it really takes—is for a host country to decide it would rather not spend the money to host them. As WWII loomed, Tokyo was too busy building battleships; in the here and now, Rio was willing to eat the cost. Olympics officials can claim the Games are above and beyond politics, but just like war, they are ultimately politics by other means.

"Moving the venue at the time, the context around it was really about what was going on globally, and this global powers are very political powers," Collins said. "So the international Olympic Games, even though it really wants to say it's sports above politics, it's sports within a political context. It always has been and it always will be."

Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter. Brian Blickenstaff is a VICE Sports staff writer. @BKBlick