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Detroit came close to holding Olympics

Crowds would have benefited Toledo

  • Detroit-came-close-to-holding-Olympics

    Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, right, shows a drawing of the proposed Olympic Stadium in 1963 to George Romney, center, governor of Michigan, and Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson, president of the Olympic committee.


  • Detroit-involved-in-Olympic-voting


Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, right, shows a drawing of the proposed Olympic Stadium in 1963 to George Romney, center, governor of Michigan, and Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson, president of the Olympic committee.


DETROIT -- There were no one-liners or raised brows -- just excitement -- inside the Toledo City Council chamber the night of Feb. 18, 1963.

As Detroit emerged as a favorite to be host for the 1968 Summer Olympics, the officials drafted a resolution supporting the bid. Mayor John Potter believed staging the Games so close to home would "signal honor for the Midwest, including Toledo," and, more important, fill his city's hotels and restaurants.

"There would have been tremendous overflow crowds," Mr. Potter, 93, said in a phone interview last week from his Toledo home. "If Detroit got the Olympics, we were really going to benefit."

It was not a pie-in-the-sky dream. Long before Detroit became a symbol of economic struggle, the world's grandest sporting event -- a two-week festival that today attracts more than 4 billion television viewers -- nearly landed just up the road.

An eternal bridesmaid, Detroit has tried to reel in the Olympics more times than any other city never to be host to the Games. The Motor City placed bids for all but one summer Olympiad between 1944 and 1972, with 1968 seen as its best shot.

Detroit, competing against Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Lyon, France, was then the fifth-largest city in the nation, with a population of about 1.6 million. Flexing its might, the proposal for the '68 Games included a triple-decked 110,000-seat stadium, a sweeping Olympic Village on the campus of Wayne State University, and a monorail system.

In a 1963 video produced by Detroit's host committee, the narrator states, "The record proves that no other region's world economy and no other assemblage of world leadership can do a better job on the 1968 Olympiad than Detroit, USA."

Detroit never got its international close-up. The city finished second to Mexico City by a vote of 30-14 -- one of four straight Olympic cycles in which Detroit won the U.S. bid and placed among the top four finalists.

Yet as the London Games this summer mark the 40th anniversary of Detroit's last furious five-ringed push, the city's Olympic legacy continues to resonate with two quietly debated questions.

Would Detroit look different today if it had staged the Olympics -- an event some credit for putting Atlanta on the world map in 1996? And could it ever get another shot?

The answers are not entirely what they seem.

City on the move

Detroit in the early 1960s was a city on the move, as went the title of another Olympic promotional video.

The Big Three automakers gave the area worldwide recognition. Motown Records was starting to churn out hit after hit. And the economy prospered.



Mayor Jerome Cavanagh told the International Olympic Committee in a taped address that Detroit had the means to stage a world-class event. He touted the 45,000 hotel rooms within an hour of the city, including in Toledo, and that Detroit had a balanced budget in 1963 of more than $350 million.

"Detroit has never been so financially healthy," he said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee chose Detroit for the 1968 bid over Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore., then lined up a procession of heavy hitters -- including President John F. Kennedy -- to make the city's case to the world.

Detroit put on its best face. Its proposal to be host for a Games that would be watched on television by 600 million included use of existing facilities such as Olympia Stadium as well as extravagant new and redeveloped ones.

The planned centerpiece was the largest stadium in the nation, to be built and served by a monorail about 10 miles north of downtown at the Michigan State Fairgrounds along Eight Mile Road.

Other proposed venues included a 10,000-seat velodrome, an outdoor pool flanked by towering grandstands and the world's first artificial rowing facility -- a semienclosed 1.25-mile course on the Detroit River.

Detroit, which had experienced a race riot that killed 34 in 1943 and would endure a deadlier uprising in 1967, also took lengths to assure Olympic voters the city was not a powder keg of unrest. Mr. Kennedy called Detroit a "cosmopolitan" metropolis "of which all Americans are proud."

"People of almost every race and creed work harmoniously in an environment of respect for each others' differences," the president wrote in a letter to the IOC on Sept. 10, 1963.

Michigan Gov. George Romney, the father of presumptive 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told the Associated Press, "If we are picked, you will see the greatest Olympiad in the history of the Games. I feel good about our chances."

Detroit's status as the favorite, however, was perhaps irreversibly damaged when Los Angeles attempted to swipe the U.S. nomination months before the final vote. L.A. officials demanded that the USOC reconsider, according to the Los Angeles Times, alleging Detroit could neither handle such an event nor afford the estimated $100 million required to be host to the Games. The glitzier West Coast city had far more hotels than Detroit and the 101,500-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was already built.

Although Detroit retained the U.S. nomination, the attack cast doubt on the bid. The 58 voting IOC members chose to make Mexico the first developing country to be host to the Olympics.

Detroit was left to wonder what could have been.

An alternative history

So what if the five-ringed bash had come to Detroit?

The Olympics would have spawned an alternative history for Detroit, if only because of the proposed capital projects. The Lions, for instance, planned to move into Olympic Stadium, which means the Silverdome in Pontiac probably would not have been built in 1975.

But would the Games have fundamentally changed the city? Would the Olympics have produced a deluge of civic pride and a revitalizing building boom? Slowed the flight of white middle-class residents? Burnished its international image and boosted tourism?

Atlanta is often cited as an example of the Olympics' transformative potential. Although the 1996 Olympics were staged to mixed reviews -- and marred by a bombing -- the privately funded Games poured new life into the city and region.

A 2006 report by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said the $57 million Centennial Olympic Park, built in a blighted industrial section of downtown, was the catalyst for more than $1.8 billion in hotels, high-rise offices, and entertainment venues in the 10 years after the Olympics.

Atlanta, with a metropolitan population of 5.7 million that has nearly doubled over the last two decades and outpaced Sun Belt growth trends, is now among the most visited cities in the United States.

"From a standpoint of putting Atlanta on the global map, it played a huge role," said Beth Snyder, who studied the Atlanta Olympics as the director of bid development for Cincinnati's odds-defying effort to land the 2012 Games. "When you drive through Atlanta, you have a sense that it meant something to the city."

On a smaller scale, Detroit could have reaped similar benefits.

"You don't know how it would have worked out," said David Wallechinsky, an author and president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "If Detroit had been really well organized, everybody had been friendly hosts, and people went back to Europe and Asia and Africa saying, 'Gee, that was really a great city,' the next time Detroit bid to host the world ophthalmology convention, people would remember the Olympics."

Others argue the Games would have had little impact on Detroit's long-term economic fortunes. In fact, it may have dodged a post-Olympic trail of debt and white elephants -- the stadiums that sit empty in many host cities after the Games.

One economist who studies the economic impact of the Olympics suggested the 1968 proposal, which included facilities scattered about the city, would have hastened the struggles of Detroit's downtown.

"Michiganders and Detroit can in some ways be thankful we didn't get the opportunity at that time because that was a period where a lot of planning and design was sprawl-oriented," said Scott Watkins, senior consultant for the Anderson Economic Group in Lansing. "We would have seen venues pop up outside of downtown. … That probably would have just accelerated the sprawl that eventually occurred and made it that much more difficult to reurbanize the city and bring people back to the core of the downtown, which is happening with some success now."

A dream lives on

Shortly after playing host to the 2006 Super Bowl, the Detroit Sports Commission gathered to determine which event to pursue next.

The city had been host to nearly every major traveling sporting event: All-Star games, championships in the four major sports, the Final Four, World Cup, U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Ryder Cup.

All of them but one.

"With the lineup of events that we've hosted over the years, you would think logically the natural progression would be, 'How about the Olympics?' " said Dave Beachnau, the commission's executive director.

After forming an ad hoc committee of area business and political leaders, Detroit decided a proposal made little sense. The bid alone would have cost millions the city did not have. Chicago reportedly spent more than $50 million on its pursuit of the 2016 Olympics, which was awarded to Rio de Janeiro.

"We would much prefer to put those resources against some events that we think we have a reasonable chance to bid for and host," Mr. Beachnau said.

Firming that opinion was Ohio's quixotic chase of the 2012 Games. Cincinnati's bid, which also involved Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton among other locations, illustrated both the former Olympic hopes of midsized cities and, in the way the $4 million bid was quashed, the evolution of the Games.

The largest cities in the world now battle for the Olympics, pushing aside relative specks like Cincinnati or Atlanta or Barcelona, Spain, a city of 1.6 million that was host to the 1992 Games. London is the most visited city in the world, while Beijing, with a population of 19.6 million, poured a record $43 billion into the 2008 Games.

"Between the time we first got into the running for the bid and by the time we actually submitted the proposal, the game to some extent had changed at the international level," Ms. Snyder said of Cincinnati's bid, which did not make the USOC's first four-city cut in 2001. "Middle-sized cities had been the ones who had been getting the bid. Following [2000 host] Sydney, which was willing to put up Australia and a huge amount of public funding, the focus shifted toward the winners becoming much more global, international destination-type cities."

Many Olympics observers, however, call for a return to the old model of the Games as a vehicle to effect social change. When the United States next bids for the event, one England-based Olympics writer believes Detroit should be its choice. The value of the Games -- estimated between $4.4 billion and $22.5 billion for the proposed Chicago Olympics -- would naturally leave a greater imprint on this region than, say, New York.

"I'd so much rather the U.S. Olympics be in Detroit rather than the U.S. puffing out its chest and saying, 'Aren't we great? " said David Owen, a former sports editor of the Financial Times and the chief columnist for "New York City doesn't need the Olympics. Detroit needs something of that sort of scale to help revive it. The city, culturally, industrially, has been such an amazing place."

So, against all odds, could it happen? Could the area's corporate community summon the required billions? Could a city of 714,000 that neared bankruptcy just this spring entertain the dream? Could Detroit bid again?

Never say never.

"To say we'll never bid for the Olympics is probably not a true statement," Mr. Beachnau said.

Contact David Briggs at:, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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