Part 1 of 2: Every four years, some city with a bankruptcy wish hosts a Summer Olympics, usually successfully! Every four years, somebody says it’ll fail or won’t be ready in time and should be boycotted, postponed, cancelled or moved.

Written by Kyle Magin

This summer, the Zika virus and impending collapse of Brazil’s political system are conspiring to join previous damn good reasons to inspire worrywarts to call for a cancellation of the Summer Olympics: Hitler, mass protests, Jimmy Carter’s leadership, terrorist threats, uncompleted venues and visitor accommodations (leader in the clubhouse!) and comical human rights violations. One thing each of these warnings have in common: They are almost never heeded and the Olympics usually come off OK, human consequences be damned.

To wit, the 20th Century:

Berlin 1936


Backstory: Hitler, one of our worst people ever associated with the games, decides to invite the world over just before destroying it. Ernest Lee Jahncke, a former U.S. Undersecretary of the Navy and a member of the International Olympic Committee, sees the Fuhrer coming from a mile away: Hitler intended to use the games to project imagery of Nazi power across the globe. Jahncke rails against this in IOC meetings, calling on Avery Brundage (another spectacularly evil asshole on the above-mentioned list) to support a boycott of the games.

In 1934, Brundage takes a heavily stage-managed trip to Berlin, where Hitler marches out a handful of Jewish athletes to convince the money-grubbing, games-above-all Brundage, who then headed the U.S. Olympic Committee, to oppose a boycott. Jahncke, a scion of New Orleans aristocracy and not the sort of person one ignores, turns up the heat in 1935 with a letter to the then-head of the IOC, Baillet-Latour, which read in part: “Neither Americans nor the representatives of other countries can take part in the Games in Nazi Germany without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”

Jahncke–descended of German Protestants–consolidates support back home from American Jews, blacks, and decent people. But this the IOC cannot stand, so it summarily dismisses him as the body’s American representative and promotes Brundage–who will eventually assume leadership of the IOC–in his place. Nobody will be dismissed from the IOC again until the fallout becomes public from the 2002 bribery scandal in Salt Lake City, which is pretty telling.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? No and hell no.

Hitler’s games go on, with Brundage sliding around with the Fuhrer in a Duesenberg, but they are nicely battered about by Jesse Owens, who upends Hitler’s Aryan kumbaya with four gold medals. Brundage will later be discovered to have removed American Jews from relay teams so as not to embarrass his host, who, it bears repeating, was fucking Hitler.

Tokyo 1940


Backstory: Posters like this, and, uh, Imperial Japan, really put people off of the games. Nobody is flying to wartime Tokyo, but the IOC, per usual, is loath to upset the oxcart because a few billion people are in conflict. A 1938 IOC conference in Cairo included tea and a visit with a preeminent Egyptologist, and a reassurance on behalf of the committee to Japan’s delegation that they still planned to allow a 1940 Games.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? Yes!

Later in 1938, the demonstrably insane Diet, or Japanese legislature, decides it is unwise to host a games during conflict and cancels the whole affair.

London 1944


Backstory: This.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? Yes! But, the IOC takes a hearty whiff of its own fart that summer, though, and hosts a small Olympic Carnival in very neutral Lausanne, Switzerland, to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

What war?

London 1948


Backstory: The “Austerity Games” actually sound pretty charming. The Games, hosted by the U.K. in the postwar years when the sun finally set on the British Empire–India and Burma declared their independence in the months leading up to the competitions–cost about $1 million 1948 dollars and featured an athlete’s breakfast spread with eggs donated from Denmark and fruit from the Netherlands. London staged the competitions in pre-existing stadiums and British athletes made their own uniforms at home.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? No!

Nor should they have been. This was a good Olympics.

Helsinki 1952

Helsingin olympiakisojen avajaiset 19.7.1952

Backstory: First Games of the Cold War.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? No.

Again, this was a pretty low-keys Games.

Melbourne 1956


Backstory: The political unrest that would mark the the second half of the 20th Century started to rear its head here. Some major players boycotted Melbourne–China, because Taiwan was allowed to participate, Egypt because of the Suez crisis and the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain because of the USSR’s crackdowns in Hungary.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? No.

Rome 1960


Backstory: TV money got into the Games in a big way in 1960 for the first time. The fat cats temporarily sated all parties.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? No.

Tokyo 1964


Backstory: Before the Olympics, a few nations collaborated on an Olympics competitor, called the Games of the New Emerging Forces, and the IOC promptly banned them all from competition in Tokyo. The list included China, North Korea and Indonesia.

Did the Olympics get cancelled? No.

Mexico City 1968


Backstory: As the world’s eyes turned toward the first-ever Latin American Olympics, the highly-insecure PRI–Mexico’s ruling party for nearly 40 years at that point–began to crack down, hard, on students and dissidents dissatisfied with the way the party was running the country. The lead-up is well documented and worth your time to read, but the story goes like this: 10 days before the October ‘68 Summer Olympics were set to begin, college students massed in an area of town called Tlatelolco Plaza to protest the government for shutting down schools following previous disturbances.

Near the end of the gathering, students began to head home when snipers, under the direction of one branch of the military, began firing on the on-the-ground soldiers, who represented another branch of the military, with the stated purpose of tricking the ground guys into thinking they were being fired upon by the students. The shots had their intended impact, and the ground guys began shooting into the crowd of students for two hours.

They wheeled tanks into the square and beat, shot and killed the living shit out of Woodstock’s south-of-the-border counterparts. A state death toll says four people died, progressive historians will tell you the number was more like 3,000, and wikipedia sorta splits the difference at ‘hundreds.’ In any event, the incident added fuel to a low-grade fire already burning in the U.S. to boycott the games, which to that point had more to do with race relations in the U.S. than concerns for the human rights record and security abilities of the Mexican regime. Following the massacre, however, calls for a U.S. boycott increased.

Were the Olympics cancelled? Lol. The IOC belonged firmly to Brundage at this point, and that dude would have kneecapped fifty students himself to buy the committee’s dukes and earls hot dogs at the opening ceremonies. The Games went on, and went on to become famous for sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ medal stand black power protest following the 200 meter dash.

Brundage would send both home early from the Games.

Munich 1972


Backstory: The lead-up to the Games was particularly nasty. A chorus of countries called for the exclusion of Rhodesia–a nation ruled by a militant apartheid regime–threatening to boycott Munich if modern-day Zimbabwe wasn’t told to stay home. Much to chagrin of real old bastard Brundage, Rhodesia was barred from competition.

But, the story of Munich and its cancellation calls stems from what happened once the athletes were in Germany.

The story of the Israeli athletes kidnapped and later killed during a botched rescue attempt is one of the saddest chapters in a remarkably sad century for the Jewish people. Extremist PLO-affiliated terrorists called ‘Black September’ stormed the Olympic village and took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage at night.

As the world woke up to the terror of a hostage negotiation the next morning, Brundage suspended the Games, temporarily. Other sources can walk you through what happens next better than I (the surreal scene is captured grippingly in Mark Riboswky’s 2011 bio, Howard Cosell, wherein readers follow Cosell as he army crawls onto a nearby rooftop to report on the scene unfolding inside the village. It’s terrifying.), but  over two days, two Israelis are killed in their rooms before a rescue attempt is botched and the rest die at Munich’s Airport.

Jim McCay sums up the scene in one of the most memorable pieces of television ever to air. A chorus of voices then calls for the Games to end, and some athletes begin to leave Munich whether they’ve competed or not. One Dutchman notably notes that one does not stay at a party after someone shows up to shoot an attendee.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No.

On the same day the crisis ended, Brundage called for a memorial service which began a series of events that could be taught in a master course of how not to handle a crisis:

  • Brundage gives a tone-deaf speech. At the memorial service hosted inside the Olympic stadium in front of 83,000 for the Israeli team. The same day most of them died. He announces that the Games will go on despite calls for them to be ended, and barely mentions the Israelis during his stirring (to him) oration about the strength of the Games, how they’ve been attacked twice, once over fucking Rhodesia and again when those 11 poor bastards got blown up or shot. Fuck it. I’ll let Brundage himself tell you: “The games of the 20th Olympiad have been subjected to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail. We have only the strength of a great ideal. I am sure the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement.”
  • During the Memorial, the Olympic flag is appropriately flown at half-mast, as are the flags of all member nations. But wait, 11 Arab nations are allowed to raise their flags to full-mast, during the ceremony, because fuck Israel.
  • The Olympics are suspended for another 24ish hours before competition resumes. When it does, a soccer match between West Germany and Hungary turns ugly when protestors unfurl a sign reading 17 dead, already forgotten? and it is forcibly taken from them.

Montreal 1976

PREMIUM -- The delegations of participating countries gather during the opening ceremonies for the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. (CP PHOTO/COC/ RW) Les délégations des pays participants s'attroupent lors cérémonies d'ouverture des Jeux olympiques de Montréal de 1976. (Photo PC/AOC)
PREMIUM — The delegations of participating countries gather during the opening ceremonies for the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. (CP PHOTO/COC/ RW)
Les délégations des pays participants s’attroupent lors cérémonies d’ouverture des Jeux olympiques de Montréal de 1976. (Photo PC/AOC)

Backstory: Most sovereign African nations boycott the games after New Zealand is allowed to compete. New Zealand stirred shit when it allowed its rugby team to tour apartheid South Africa.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No.

But, in retrospect, maybe they should have been? Funky financing and a rousing disaster of a stadium–La Stade Olympique’s retractable roof would retract just 88 times before failing–left Montrealais and Quebecois on the hook until 2006 to finance the Games.

Moscow 1980


Backstory: The Soviet Union’s military invaded the graveyard of empires–Afghanistan–in December of 1979 to support a brutish, USSR-friendly regime. This prompted Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum: Pull out in one month or the U.S. will boycott the Moscow Games (despite Russia agreeing to attend the winter Games held that year in Lake Placid.) The USSR wouldn’t pull out for nine years.

In response, the US led a coalition of 64 other nations to boycott the Olympics. A few nations left it to their athletes to decide who would attend and officially supported the boycott without totally participating in it. As a result, athletes from these nations didn’t get to see their flags raised in Moscow or their anthems played.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No, but records set in Moscow are regarded as dubious or even null to this day, as are those set at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell Games–a U.S. competition meant to give boycotting athletes an outlet.

Los Angeles 1984


Backstory: The Soviet Union and 14 Soviet-affiliated nations, plus a few minor Middle Eastern countries, returned Carter’s favor in 1984 in LA, which is widely considered one of the most successful games in modern Olympic history.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No!

LA even made money on the games, an idea so foreign to today’s organizing committees as to have been thought up in 1884.

Seoul 1988


Backstory: Just read this.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No, but man, hindsight’s a real SOB.

Barcelona 1992


Backstory: Barcelona was the first Games since the ‘60s to have no boycotts. You remember it for the Dream Team, Spaniards remember it for saddling them with $11 billion in cost overruns (450-plus percent over budget!) that would lay the groundwork for a heap of financial troubles in the decades to come.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No.

Atlanta 1996


Backstory: You remember Atlanta for being the most corporate games you’d seen so far, with known local prodigy/diabetic rascal Coca-Cola ensuring it was branded to the hilt. It was the first televised Olympics to showcase a commercial for a cellphone. It also was briefly halted after a trio of pipe bombs went off at a nearby park.

Were the Olympics cancelled? No.