Summer Olympic Dreams

Proposed Olympic Stadium. Image from the Detroit Historical Society.

We are in the midst of the Olympic games, which always make me think of what a Detroit-hosted Olympics would look like. Could we do it? What venues would host the different events? Would it be contained in the city, or would some events be in the suburbs? Would we be best suited for the summer or winter games?  

There are several athletic venues within the city, and plenty of water in the form of Lake Saint Clair and the Detroit River for summer events. You can pursue winter sports pretty easily in Michigan, thought I’m not sure our hills would be up to Olympic-level skiing.

A quick Google search reveals I’m far from the only one who has indulged in a little Detroit-Olympics fantasizing. The Detroit Free Press, for one, speculated about the feasibility of a joint Detroit-Windsor bid (pretty feasible it seems). In fact, Detroit has submitted several bids in the past, particularly around the mid 20th Century.

Curbed Detroit mapped the venues found in the failed proposal for the 1968 summer games, including the unbuilt main complex, to be located at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. The fairgrounds are just a few miles from my house. To be so close to the action is hard to imagine. Not just because August traffic on Woodward Avenue is already pretty awful.

The Masonic Temple, a small venue, was supposed to be “relegated to unpopular events, like weightlifting.” I contest that even in the four years since that article was written, weightlifting has increased in popularity given the boost from the adjacent sport of Crossfit. I think it would have a decent draw in the US in particular, and I would for sure buy tickets to see Olympic weightlifting if I ever went to the games.

Some of the proposed venues no longer exist today, but many have been replaced with new buildings. The since-demolished Olympia Stadium (former home of the Red Wings) was one of them. Joe Louis Arena replaced it, which is about to be replaced itself by a new hockey stadium currently under construction.

One of the major names behind Detroit’s multiple bids was Detroit Olympic Committee founder and chair Frederick C. Matthaei. Wayne State University, his alma mater, benefited from the attempts to bring the Olympics to town. As part of the 1968 bid, the Mattaei Athletic Center was built on campus.

It seems every Olympiad brings scrutiny on the host city. Cities go to spectacular lengths to prepare for the games. It takes an astronomical amount of money to build the needed venues and sometimes infrastructure and the financial gain seems debatable. In Sochi, hotels were in terrible condition. In Rio, there has been at least some criticisms  of what all the money spent on preparing for the world spotlight could have done for its poorest citizens instead.

The 1968 Olympics ultimately went to Mexico City, but it would have been an interesting time for Detroit to host the event. The United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement and experienced many other difficult events in the 1960s. In 1967, Detroit broke under racial tension, resulting in several days of violence that July. If Detroit’s Olympic bid had been successful, how would things have been different? Would the conditions that lead to the unrest have been worse? How much more marginalized would some of Detroit’s citizens have become in the city’s pursuit of that goal? How would that impact the Olympics themselves? Would John Carlos and Tommie Smith have had more protesters on their side? Could the games have united the city during such a difficult time?

In 2013, the US Olympic Committee asked Detroit to submit a bid. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy and Mayor Bing rightfully declined. Even to bid costs a great deal of money. But maybe one day….

The Burton Collection at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library has materials related to the Olympic bids. Unfortunately, as I write this, the digital collections are down. But an in-person visit would probably result in great finds!

Image from the Detroit Historical Society.

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