DETROIT OLYMPIC HISTORY
The history of the city's Olympic bids and a vision of the future.
President Kennedy introduces Detroit’s
bid for the 1968 Olympic Games
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The Story of a Betrayal?
Fred Matthaei Sr was responsible for organizing all of the bids from 1944 to 1968. Matthaei needed the support of Avery Brundage, who was first President of the USOC and then President of the IOC. Born in Detroit, his support might have seemed assured, but in the end he let the city down. He also appears to have been a racist and misogynist. The correspondence between the two over the years reveals a difficult relationship, and perhaps points to where the bid finally failed. The major row over the chaotic American cities’ bids for the 1956 games led to acrimonious words between the two, and although Brundage continued to offer encouragement to Detroit’s bids, and even came to the Detroit Athletic Club to deliver a speech, the poor relationship between the two men may have put paid to Detroit’s chances.
The City of Champions
The inspiration for the Olympic bids
In 1935 the Detroit Tigers at last won their first World Series. In the same year the Detroit Lions won their first NFL championship and in April 1936 the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup. The Governor of Michigan declared April 18th to be Champions Day in the state, and the Detroit Times organized a celebratory dinner at the Masonic Temple with Joe Louis as the guest of honor. Staged during the middle of the Great Depression, the event represented a celebration of a sports-mad city and a focus of civic pride. Talk of hosting an Olympics can be traced back as far as 1920, but it was Champions Day that inspired a group of citizens led by the architect, George Graves, to begin exploratory talks with the US Olympic Association about the possibility of Detroit becoming host of the games.
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Toronto Maple Leafs
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National Football League
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Presenting Detroit to the world – the bid documents
Each time Detroit presented a bid for the Games it produced a bid document. Each represents a snapshot in the history of the city. The choice of images shows how the bid organizers wanted to project the city. These include buildings where events would be hosted, open spaces such as Belle Isle, landmarks which focused mainly on the city’s industrial strength. The text of the bid documents is also revealing. It focuses on the city’s commitment to the Olympic Games, its industrial strength, and over time, the demand for recognition of its persistence in bidding. The documents are also revealing for what they do not show. Probably the biggest obstacle to winning the Games was the failure to build an Olympic Stadium. More importantly, the documents show little awareness of the changing face of the city, the growing significance of the Black population, and no concern for addressing their interest in the Olympics.
Detroit Olympic Stadium Plans
The IOC was always afraid that the Olympics would be awarded to a city on the promise of building an Olympic Stadium and then the city would not keep its promise. This problem dogged Detroit’s Olympic bids. Over the years many plans were produced, but there were always problems relating to funding and location. The city was reluctant to underwrite the cost – even though in relative terms the cost would have been much lower back then. In the 1950s there were arguments about whether it might cost $10 million or $20 million. Even allowing for the effect of inflation, this would have been much cheaper than the equivalent project today. What would happen to a stadium after the Games? It was not clear back then that a stadium with 100,000 capacity, a figure often mentioned, could be fully utilized.
Location proved to be just as big a problem. Three main sites usually came up for discussion – The State Fairgrounds (Woodward Avenue and Eight Mile Road), Midtown (close to Wayne State University) and the Riverfront. Different factions lobbied for different alternatives, and a consensus never emerged.
The images below show some of the designs created for the Detroit Olympic bids. Most were the creation of architects Giffels, Vallet, and Louis Rossetti. Rossetti remains one of the largest architectural firms in Detroit.
“What if Detroit had been chosen to host the 1968 Olympics?
"With the Olympics only a year away, would the riots of 1967 have happened, or happened in the same way, or would the Cavanagh administration have reacted more effectively to prevent or control them? Unanswerable, but worth pondering. And then consider 1968, with the racial dynamics of that year, and the call for a black athlete boycott that almost rocked the Games, and the historic gloved-fist black power salute of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand, and how all that would have played out had the Olympics not been in Mexico City but in Detroit, a city at the center of the long and complicated story of race in America." - from Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, by David Maraniss (2015)
The proponents of the Detroit Olympics were convinced that it would be of great benefit to the city, and devoted a lot of effort to promoting it
Rather than emphasisizing economic benefits to the city, most of the arguments focused on the pride and pleasure it would bring to Detroiters. There was even a specially written song
Imagining a Detroit Olympics
Is it too fanciful to imagine Detroit as an Olympic city? Is it worthwhile to do so? The Olympics are not a panacea for economic and social problems. There’s also plenty of evidence the money spent on Olympic facilities does not produce any long term benefits, as the facilities lie idle or underutilized after the Games.
For a city like Detroit, hosting an Olympic Games requires reimagining how they are organized. Here is an imagined path to a 2048 Detroit Olympics.
Suppose the ignominy of yet another scandal forced the International Olympic Committee to rethink its policies, its practices, and its priorities. Following a lengthy internal review, the IOC’s leadership decided they could no longer lean on host cities to provide ever more lavish facilities with no practical use after the event. It was time to return to the Games’ roots, the simple idea of athletes from around the world coming together to compete. Too much of Olympic razzmatazz had come to focus on brand new extravagant showcases rather than on the humanity of the athletes. The stage had become more important than the play.
Once the IOC recognized that it had to change its ways, the power balance flipped and it was now the Committee that had to make the offer, and the city that had to be persuaded. The world would still want to watch the athletes, but the Games would be scaled down to human proportions. Suppose the IOC decided to stop ferreting out cities that were prepared to spend money on white elephants. Instead, they turned to a city that had a proven commitment to sport, at a scale that served the community.
All of a sudden, Detroit would look near perfect. As a world-class sports city, it was well endowed with facilities of all kinds, including venues to practice. The partnership between Detroit and Windsor to create a cross-border Games was a key factor for the IOC. So in the end, the two countries created a fifty-mile Olympic zone around Detroit, taking down the border for the duration of the event.
At the time, many cities had bowed out of the Olympic bid business—too expensive, too inconvenient. But Detroit’s citizens were behind it from the start: Motown is known for its sports, after all, with a long and proud history. A City of Champions would now bring the champions to the city. But the final nod also came as belated recognition of the many times Detroit had offered and had been turned down: a bit of restitution for the shenanigans of the past.
For a few summer weeks every four years, one city becomes the center of the world of sports—it is second only to the FIFA World Cup in global viewership. The State of Michigan, which had treated Detroit as a stepchild for so long, finally saw a city worth investing in: suddenly, there was money for public transportation systems that linked Detroit to its suburbs—and the suburbs, in turn, were happy to claim Detroit as their own for once.
To be sure, there were critical voices as well. For some, any investment in America’s cities is wasteful by definition and must always be opposed. Elsewhere, skeptics were wondering if the money could not be spent on better things than a two-week jock party. But the Olympics were changing, and the new model prioritized the city over the glitz. The supporters won the debate handily.
This exhibition was created by Frederic Culpepper, Amanda Krugliak, Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck
in collaboration with the Michigan Detroit Center.
The material in this exhibition is predominantly drawn from the Detroit Olympic Committee archive in Detroit Public Library, to whom we are grateful both for access and for their support. We thank the University of Illinois for access to the Avery Brundage archive, the University of Michigan Bentley Library for access to the Fred Matthaei Jr. archive, and the Detroit Historical Society for their support.
We are grateful for the financial support of various units at the University of Michigan: the College of Literature, Science and the Arts; the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the School of Kinesiology; the Departments of Comparative Literature and of History; the Rackham School of Graduate Studies; the Detroit Center,
We also extend our appreciation for their support and advice to Ketra Armstrong, Kerstin Barndt, Mark Bowden, Andrew Crocker, Ben Dettmar, Jeremy Dimmick, Kathryn Dowgiewicz, Dawn Eurich, Jordan Field, Atiim Funchess, Chelsea Hendrus, Gidon Jakar, Gregory Kinney, Jason Krol, Jiangyun Li, Anna Moga, Shengyuan Liu, Feodies Shipp III, Rob Sellers, Joel Stone, Bradley Taylor, Ron Wade, Rebecca Salminen Witt, Tracey Wyatt
Stefan is also grateful to all the students who took his course on Detroit Sports and the Detroit Olympics for their ideas and engagement.