As metro Detroiters watch the Olympic games broadcast from London later this month, they might be surprised to hear that their city was once a contender.
Between 1944 and 1972, Michigan business and civic leaders lobbied for Detroit to host the quadrennial event. During the early years, Detroit faced the International Olympic Committee (IOC), vying against the likes of Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Each time, Detroit garnered a modest number of votes.
Detroit’s reputation as one of the world’s great cities proved invaluable when, beginning with the 1960 games, the U.S. Olympic Committee ruled that only one American city would represent the nation before the IOC.
Spearheading the 1964 and 1968 bids was Fred Matthaei, a University of Michigan graduate and chairman of American Metal Products Inc. Working out of offices in the Veterans Memorial Building downtown, The Detroit Olympic Committee, as it was officially known, enlisted luminaries including Lynn Townsend, Walker Cisler, and Richard Austin to organize an array of subcommittees devoted to logistics, transportation, and medical facilities, among other factors.
The bids were effective enough for Detroit to win the USOC’s nod for the 1960 and ’64 games. As the nation’s representative, Detroit proved a formidable competitor. In 1960, Detroit survived to the second round of voting, only to finish behind Laussane, Switzerland, and the ultimate winner, Rome. For 1964, the Motor City emerged a distant second to Tokyo, but saved its strongest effort for the 1968 event.
Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Gov. George Romney worked closely with the committee, which drew up elaborate arrangements under Matthaei and his deputy, Doug Roby. Plans made use of existing facilities: Tiger Stadium would host soccer and field hockey, University of Detroit’s Memorial Building, now named Calihan Hall, would see basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, and weightlifting. Outdoor and indoor pools at Rouge Park and Wayne State University were designated for aquatic events. Rowing and yachting would occur on the Detroit River near Belle Isle. The only planned construction was for an open-air stadium at the State Fairgrounds, a nearby velodrome for cycling events, and an Olympic village adjacent to Wayne State.
Three cities stood in the way: Lyon, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. Lyon was thought an unlikely choice since the IOC decided to de-emphasize the modern Games’ European roots; Buenos Aires suffered from political instability, and Mexico City’s altitude (almost 8,000 feet above sea level) caused it to be viewed as the least likely choice. Committee members had heard reports of athletes gasping for air during the 1955 Pan American Games.
The Olympic flame bypassed southeast Michigan, however. When the final vote was held in Baden-Baden, Germany in October 1963, Detroit lost to Mexico City, 30-14.