Frankly, I still can’t see the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (rescheduled for July 23-August 8 this year) going ahead. Forging on with plans to stage the Games strikes me as reckless in the circumstances. But there need not be a cancellation, as there was for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. On July 31, 1936, the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Berlin, awarded the 1940 Summer Games to Tokyo. The Second Sino-Japanese War, which broke out on July 7, 1937, intensified the next year and on July 15, 1938, the Japanese cabinet approved the cancellation of both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The latter were set down for Sapporo in early February 1940 and subsequently awarded to St Moritz in Switzerland then Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Nazi Germany. Like the Summer Games, they were not held. On July 19, 1938, Finland accepted the IOC’s invitation for Helsinki to stage the 1940 Summer Games, but these were cancelled on April 23, 1940.
Three weeks later, on May 13, the 18-year-old Esther Williams, the champion Californian breaststroke swimmer who had been considered a certain medallist at the 1940 Olympics, accepted her Olympic dream was over and turned professional. She joined the West Coast version of Billy Rose’s “Aquacade” a music, dance and swimming show. Williams replaced Rose’s wife, 1932 Los Angeles Olympics gold medallist, Eleanor Holm. Williams went on to star in “aquamusicals” for MGM, including portraying Australian Annette Kellerman in “Million Dollar Mermaid”. Williams wrote an autobiography with the same title. She died of natural causes in her Los Angeles home on June 6, 2013, aged 91.
By 1982, West Australian athlete Decima Norman had come to fear war would interfere in her life twice. She had been appointed custodian of the baton for that year’s Brisbane Commonwealth Games, at a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. “War stopped my career before,” Decima said. “I hope it doesn’t interfere this time.” Fortunately, hostilities ended in the Falklands on June 14, five days before Decima flew to London with the baton. The baton relay started with the English Queen handing it to a British runner, and Decima then brought it back to her home town of Albany in Western Australia, from where it was relayed to Brisbane. On September 30, with Decima watching on, Raelene Boyle brought it into QEII Stadium and handed it to the late Duke of Edinburgh.
Dubbed by newspapers as “Dashing Des”, the “Silver Streak” and the “White Flash”, Decima was not quite in the Betty Grable league – nonetheless her legs were ensured for £500 when she returned to Sydney, this time to compete and settle there, in early 1939. Decima’s sprinting style was derided by all, included herself (she “ran like a hen in flight” according to her coach), but it was sufficiently adequate to carry her to gold medals at the Empire Games in the 100 and 220 yards, the long jump and in two relays. Her five golds remained a Commonwealth Games record until Canadian swimmer Graham Smith grabbed six in Edmonton in 1978.
Decima was an experienced and highly proficient typist and promises of work, including one at a newspaper, had lured her to Sydney in 1939, where she knew conditions and competition would boost her Olympic Games chances. She was ranked seventh in the world in the long jump in 1940, plus seventh in the 200m and sixth in the 80m hurdles.
The planned 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled five months after the Sydney Empire Games ended, and Decima had then set her sights on Helsinki. Six months after the Finnish Olympics were called off, Decima announced she was retiring from athletics. A decade later her Australian records began to fall. Hours after being presented with an MBE by Prince Charles on April 8, 1983, Decima was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with cancer. After almost five months of treatment in Perth, she died there on August 29.