January 21, 1938 – To Boycott Or Not To Boycott The 1940 Tokyo Olympics – Past Daily Reference Room
As it came to pass, the 1940 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo never materialized. In fact, the Olympic Winter and Summer games wouldn’t be held again until 1948, after World War 2 had been concluded for some three years.
But in 1938, almost three years before they were to take place, debate had begun over whether or not the U.S. should participate or boycott the games, owing to the increasingly hostile world situation. And that by 1940 many wondered if the situation would be better or worse than it was in January of 1938. Although there was much drum-beating going on over the increasing possibility of war, the only place where fighting was actively taking place was Spain. There were rumors of trouble between China and Japan, but many felt whatever hostilities occurred, they would be well over by 1940.
And so the debate was whether or not The Olympics should be viewed as pure sport or as a forum for political views. Many felt that, whatever was going on in the world, what was going on in the Olympic stadium was safe-haven, immune to political causes or sides and that the countries considering boycotting the games were not acting in the spirit of the Olympics and were doing the sports world an enormous disfavor.
But the decision was made on September 1, 1939 – before that, because Japan invaded Manchuria, the Olympic games wouldn’t be held in Tokyo as they were planned, but in Helsinki, Finland the runner-up city selected by the IOC.
So the question of whether or not it was morally right to refuse sending athletes to the Olympic games was very much a hot-button topic in 1938. This broadcast commentary, by the celebrated Dutch-American historian, author and journalist H.W. van Loon was very much on the side of having the U.S. participate in the games despite sentiments that it would be a bad political move on our parts.
But fate stepped in anyway and War took over the conversation a year later.
It’s interesting to note that we’ve had other occasions to cancel our participation in the Olympics – and the arguments are still pretty much the same, then as now. But in 1938 we were a different world.
Here is that broadcast commentary by Henrik Willem van Loon for January 21, 1938