A Brief History in Interrupted Olympic Games

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After mounting pressure from nations and athletes, Japan and the International Olympic Committee have postponed the Tokyo 2020 Olympics until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. And while COVID-19 is upending lives in unprecedented ways, there is precedent for hitting the pause button on the Olympics.

Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, the Games have been paused three times—all due to war. In addition, twice, the equestrian portion of the Olympics have been held in a different location than the rest of the events. And once only 11 nations competed following a boycott.

Here’s a look at some of those unusual Olympics:

1916

The Berlin Games were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Initially, the organizers had been optimistic that they would go on, however an armistice wasn’t reached until 1918. No 1916 games were to be had.

1940

Is it possible that Tokyo could be cursed? The 1940 Games were originally supposed to take place in Tokyo, but when war erupted between Japan and China in 1937, Japan declined to host the games. The Olympics was moved to Helsinki, Finland, but it was not to be as World War II began in September 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland.

In 1941, the 1936 three-day event gold medalist Ludwig Stubbendorff and his horse Nurmi died in a German cavalry invasion of Poland.

1944

Alas, the following games fared no better. With World War II still raging by 1944, the Olympics slated to take place in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy were also cancelled.

Cancellations aside, equestrian events, always the odd duck of Olympic sports, are no stranger to atypical games:

1956

Horses couldn’t compete on location for the Melbourne Games due to strict quarantine laws in Australia. Instead, the IOC decided to host the equestrian portion of the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden several months before the Melbourne Games. The equestrian events even had their very own opening and closing ceremonies.

Canada, represented by John Rumble, Jim Elder and Brian Herbinson, earned the team bronze in eventing that year. It was the only North American nation to medal in equestrian sports.

1980

Russia was set to host the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Six months before the Games the Russians invaded Afghanistan. In protest, the Americans lead a boycott of the Games and a so called “Alternate Games” was organized in the Netherlands with the allied countries in its place.

Only eleven nations competed in the equestrian events that Olympics: Austria, Bulgaria, Guatemala, Finland, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Romania, and the USSR. Thirteen, including equestrian superpowers Germany, Great Britain, France, USA, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland, fielded teams in Rotterdam. At the end, it was Canada that rode away with the team gold, its their show jumping team’s best ever and officially unrecognized finish.

2008

In 2005, international veterinary groups refused to certify Beijing free of equine disease. This meant any horses entering Beijing would have to sit in quarantine for long periods of time before they could return to their home countries. As a workaround, the IOC hosted the equestrian portion of the Beijing Games in Hong Kong.

That Olympiad proved to be the most successful for North America riders. USA’s Gina Miles took the individual silver in eventing, while the Americans faced off against the Canadians in a jump off for the show jumping team gold. Ultimately, the USA won with Canada taking team silver. But Canada’s Eric Lamaze would go on to take the individual gold. USA’s Beezie Madden, the bronze.


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