All our lives, the Olympics have been a constant, with the Summer and Winter Olympics happening every four years without fail. But there have been a handful of times in history when the Olympics have been canceled.
Here are five times when the Olympics were canceled and why.
Ancient Greek Olympics – 394 AD
The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896. But the tradition of the Olympics goes back millennia. The first Olympic games were held in Greece in 776 BC, more than 2,750 years ago.
These original Olympics looked very different from our modern Olympics and initially had very few events. Over time, more events were added and athletes from all around Ancient Greece congregated to crown champions, many of which are similar to our modern events.
As you might imagine, historical records aren’t nearly as complete as we have in modern times. But as far as we know, the ancient Olympics were held regularly for more than 1,000 years, even after Greece came under the control of the Roman Empire.
But in 394, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I canceled the Olympics, objecting to some of the pagan rituals associated with it. This marked the end of the Olympics for more than 1,000 years.
1916 Summer Olympic Games
The modern Olympic Games were reborn in 1896, with the first modern games being held in Athens, Greece. From that point forward, a new city and country would host the Olympics every four years.
In the early days, only the Summer Olympics existed, and the event list and participating countries were far less expansive than today’s. For comparison, the 1896 Olympics had 43 events with 14 countries participating, while the 2016 Summer Olympics had 306 events with 207 countries participating.
The first five modern Summer Olympic games went off without a hitch, being held four times in Europe and once in the United States. And the next Olympic Games were scheduled for 1916 in Berlin, Germany.
Unfortunately, 1914 was the year that World War I began. By 1916 the European continent was ravaged by warfare. Of the 28 nations attending the 1912 Olympics, 21 were European nations, meaning that sporting events were the furthest things from most of the potential Olympians’ minds.
The 1916 Olympics were canceled, resuming in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium after World War I ended in 1918.
1940 Summer and Winter Olympic Games
After the cancellation of the 1918 Olympics, the next five Summer Olympics up to the 1936 Olympics were held with no issues. And in 1924, the Winter Olympics were born.
Today, the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics are held in staggered two-year intervals. But until 1994, both the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics were held during the same year. In 1940, Japan was scheduled to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
But by 1937, Japan was at war with China, and in 1938 the Japanese delegation formally forfeited hosting the Olympics due to the war, and Helsinki, Finland became the new host of the Olympics.
However, 1939 marked the full-scale beginning of World War II. This war saw fighting in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. Nearly every country in the world had some involvement in World War II, and the idea of holding the Olympics was not a priority.
1944 Summer and Winter Olympic Games
World War I lasted for four years and resulted in the cancellation of a single Olympic Games. But World War II was an even more awful and lengthy conflict, and by 1944 the war raged on.
The 1944 Summer Olympics were initially scheduled to be held in London, with the Winter Olympics to be held in Italy. But by 1941, it was already clear that the geopolitical situation would not permit the Olympics to be held, and both Olympics were canceled.
2020 Summer Olympic Games
After the 1944 Olympics, the Olympics have been held without interruption for nearly 70 years. They have seen notable boycotts by major nations – The United States in 1980, the Soviet Union in 1984 – but an Olympic Games have happened every four years without fail.
Now, with COVID-19 affecting everyone’s life worldwide, the Olympics has been canceled. It’s the first interruption since World War II.
Technically, at this point, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics are only postponed until 2021 rather than outright canceled like some of the previous Olympics that were canceled. But only time will tell whether these Olympic Games will be held as usual in 2021.
The every-four-years nature of the Olympics can be something reassuring in our lives. We can look forward to them, knowing that they’re coming up like clockwork, an event that brings the world together for a few weeks every four years.
Looking at the history of the Olympics shows how exceptional any breaks in that schedule are. Worldwide wars and pandemic are the only events that have been able to interrupt the modern Olympic Games.