How Petty Squabbles And Political Infighting Cost A Generation The Chance To Experience A Summer Olympics In America Or: Does It Always Have To Be Los Angeles?

By Benjamin Dettmar

This is the first of two articles that will look at attempts by US cities to bring the summer Olympics to the US between Los Angeles’ successful bids in 1932 and 1984. The first piece will concentrate on the 1940s and 1950s; both articles will have an emphasis on Detroit, the bridesmaid of Olympic cities[1], which also happens to be the focus of my research.

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Athletics at the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium (now the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) during the 1932 summer Olympics. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Los Angeles, California, hosted the games of the X Olympiad (1932) and the XXIII Olympiad (1984). The 52 year gap is surprising, particularly when you understand that US cities have been some of the few places that have actually made a profit whilst hosting the Games, that this period coincided with the only US President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and that these years saw at least 22 separate bids from US cities to bring the Games to the United States. However, the mid-twentieth century also saw great infighting in the United States Olympic Committee (USOC)[2]. US cities fought amongst themselves and, in some instances, deliberately sabotaged each other in a bid to get the IOC to award them the privilege of hosting the Olympics. Sadly, for US Olympic fans, this ensured that no US city was awarded the privilege of hosting the Games in this period.

1940 & 1944: The Games That Never Were

At the center of the USOC’s bids to bring the Games to the United States was Detroit. Detroit’s first official bid to host the Olympics was an attempt to bring the 1944 Summer Games to the Motor City. Of course the bid failed; indeed the Games themselves were never held due to World War Two, but this was not the first time Detroit had been mentioned as a potential host.

The 1940 Olympics were beset with organizational problems. The ongoing conflict in Europe and the Pacific meant that any attempt to find a neutral site for the Games was liable to be fruitless. Indeed the games were originally award to Tokyo, Japan, and then moved to Helsinki, Finland, due to the Second Sino-Japanese War. World War Two ensured that Helsinki would not be a suitable place to hold the event and the Games of the XII Olympiad were never staged. There was discussion however, albeit mainly within the US, that Detroit could prove to be a viable neutral host for the Games. Detroit newspapers reported that the IOC had already made the decision to give the Olympics to Detroit should Helsinki back out. Detroit’s then Mayor Richard Reading, with typical mayoral aplomb, claimed that Detroit would “welcome the games with open arms”. The Games obviously never occurred but Detroit’s position as Olympic bridesmaid had begun.[3]

World War Two also ensured that the 1944 Games were never held, and although the IOC and the world knew that the Games were unfeasible there was important political bartering happening with regard to subsequent host sites. It is widely accepted that London won the vote for 1948 largely because it had won the vote for the XIII Olympiad in 1944.

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Page 1 of Detroit’s official 1944 Bid Brochure. Photo author’s own.

US delegates realized that the chances of the European dominated IOC awarding the games to the US just twelve years after Los Angeles 1932 were slim, but putting Detroit’s name up for consideration ensured that the city would be a potential front runner for 1948 and beyond. Reading Detroit’s official bid brochure for 1944, it is clear that the city was serious in its intentions.

Detroit’s somewhat ambitious aim to bring the Games back to the US, just 12 years after Los Angeles 1932, was unsuccessful. The city received 2 votes from members of the IOC when the election was held in London in 1939. London easily won the first round of voting with 20 votes beating Detroit and 6 other candidate cities.

Although the 1944 Games were never held, the votes for London were important as Britain’s capital was awarded the 1948 Games (without election) at the 39th IOC Session in 1946.[4] Interestingly, a Detroit delegation did travel to the Session where US cities Baltimore, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia all indicated an official desire to bring the games to America.

The impetus from Detroit’s attempts to get the Games in 1944, interest from other US cities in 1948, the fact that it would now be twenty years since the Games had been in the US, and the fact that Europe had held two consecutive Summer Games meant that Detroit would appear to be well positioned to bid for the Games of the XV Olympiad in 1952.

1952: Too Many Cooks Spoil US Ambition

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A page from Philadelphia’s 1952 bid highlighting Philadelphia Municipal Stadium and Franklin Field. Photo author’s own.

The IOC met to award the 1952 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden (home of IOC President Sigfrid Edström), in June 1947 during the 40th IOC Session. Detroit’s official brochure attempted to highlight Detroit’s place on the world stage and began with the words:

We feel that the games in their glorious pageantry are the ritual of a religion in the spirit of ancient Greece-Olympism-perhaps the last best hope to achieve a brotherhood of man on Earth….We feel that Detroit is fertile ground for Olympism, and that the conduct of the games here-the acting as host to the world-would have a salutary effect upon the community and react in turn to strengthen the Olympic movement throughout the world.

These are strong sentiments and undoubtedly play on the role that the US had in bringing an end to World War Two and emerging as a superpower on the world stage. The final bid brochure given to the IOC goes on to highlight Detroit’s plans to build new venues in the city including a 104,000 capacity track and field stadium and a 20,000 capacity outdoor swimming and diving venue in River Rouge Park on the west of the city.[5]

Unfortunately for the bidding US cities, the 40th IOC Session saw Helsinki win the bid for 1952 with relative ease. Helsinki’s victory is not particularly surprising given that the IOC was still predominantly controlled by its European members and they had been originally set to host the Games in 1940; but it is fascinating that five US cities made it through to the final stage of the bidding process.

There is no doubt that the sheer number of US cities going before the IOC hampered the chance of the Games coming to the US. The vote in 1947 took on a more formal democratic process than what had gone before. All candidate cities had thirty minutes to present their city to the members of the IOC. Furthermore, IOC members from the countries involved were required to be absent from the room during presentations by cities from their home nation (meaning USOC Representative, and later IOC President, Avery Brundage was somewhat anonymous).

With five US cities and five European cities presenting, it is not surprising the first round of voting was so convoluted. US cities picked up 11 votes in the first round of balloting (Los Angeles 4, Minneapolis 4, Detroit 2, Chicago 1, Philadelphia 0) with Helsinki getting 14 votes and Amsterdam 3 votes. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to believe that those voting for the four US cities to receive votes would have voted for a single US city. As such a single candidate USOC city would have been left scrambling to acquire Amsterdam’s votes in the second round of the ballot. Of course, if successful, this would have meant a tied election, 14 votes each, for the USOC candidate and Helsinki, a tie likely broken by IOC President Sigfrid Edström who would surely have brought the Games to Scandinavia. However we view the 1947 election, whether we look at the actual results or attempt to analyse it with hindsight, the decision of the USOC to put forward five candidates was incredibly short-sighted.

One of the leaders of Detroit’s Olympic Committee Doug Roby believed that Detroit was agonizingly close to hosting the 1952 Games, only to be undone by a changing view of Europe’s political climate and the fact that the USOC had allowed too many candidates to appear before the IOC. Roby discussed his concerns in a January 1949 Memorandum.

In private conversation with many of the members of the International Olympic Committee, opinion was expressed that it was unlikely that Helsinki would extend an invitation for the 1952 Games due to political conditions in Europe at the time. This opinion and sentiment very much buoyed our hopes of being awarded the 1952 Games….Upon our arrival in Stockholm we found that several other American cities had sensed the same feeling as we, and Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia had delegations present, all extending invitations for the 1952 Games….The change in the status of Helsinki’s bid, together with the very unfavorable foreign dollar exchange conditions presently existing, threw much of the support of the International Olympic Committee behind Helsinki….Various members of the International Olympic Committee informed our Detroit delegation that they would have been in favor of Detroit had Helsinki been out of the running…[but] there was considerable criticism from many members of the International Olympic Committee with regard to the confusion resulting from the fact that so many United States cities had sent delegations to make a bid for their own respective cities.

Roby’s suspicions were real and are evidenced by letters from the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG). A 21 February 1949 letter from SCCOG Secretary Ralph O. Chick clearly highlights the disdain the SCCOG had for both Detroit and the USOC.

Our Executive Committee does not approve of the action taken by the U.S.O.A. nor agree with the conclusions upon which these actions were based i.e., that the United States did not receive favorable consideration at Stockholm because too many American cities were making applications for the Games of 1952….In our opinion it is not within the province of a national Olympic Committee of any country to attempt to exert influence in behalf of any city as the site of a future Olympiad, and we feel that such a step will injure rather than further the chances of the Games coming to the United States in 1956. Therefore, we do not feel inclined to comply with the request [for the USOC to only forward one city to the IOC] of the U.S.O.A.

A later letter dated 25 February 1949 from the SCCOG President Paul Helms to IOC President Sidfrid Edström goes even further with its pooh-poohing of the USOC and appeals directly to the coffers of the IOC.

We did not ask the United States Olympic Association to send delegates to the City of Los Angeles to look over our facilities, because, according to our interpretation of the protocol of the International Olympic Committee, the awarding of the Olympic Games to a city rests exclusively with the International Olympic Committee….The Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles in 1932 during the depth of one of the greatest world-wide depressions. After repaying a bond issue of $1,000,000 to the State of California, we had a remaining sum of $424,000…if Los Angeles is granted the Games, we will divide equally any net profit with the International Olympic Committee….It is our plan to invite all members of the International Olympic Committee and your executive Officers to be our guests upon their arrival in Los Angeles, and to provide hotel accommodations and meals at our expense. This would naturally include the member’s wife or traveling companion.

The fears of Roby and the rest of Detroit’s Olympic committee were very real. Furthermore, the USOC and the US members of the IOC did relatively little to allay these fears and to stop other US cities from undermining Detroit’s bid and their status as the official candidate city of the USOC. These issues would continue to plague Detroit.

1956: The Games Leave Europe…They Do Not Come Stateside

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An artist’s impression of Detroit’s proposed stadium for the 1956 Olympics. The Stadium would have been located at Farwell Field on 8 Mile Road. Photo author’s own.

The decision to award the 1956 Olympics took place at the IOC’s 43rd session in Rome, Italy, in 1949. At this session, Detroit presented their official bid brochure for 1956; interestingly, the first page of the brochure is a nod to Detroit’s bidding history as it references Detroit’s presentations to the IOC in London, 1939, in Lausanne, 1946, and in Stockholm, 1947.

The brochure goes on to address some of the inadequacies of their earlier bids, specifically with regard to multiple US cities having the backing of the USOC.

[T]he United State Olympic Association conducted studies and followed Democratic procedures in the year 1948 to the end of determining and fixing upon one city of the United States that would exclusively be endorsed to your committee as the official United States aspirant to act as host for an Olympiad. As you all doubtless know, and have by official communication of the United States Olympic Association been informed, Detroit, by unanimous acclamation, has been chosen as such city.

Once again however, the USOC’s endorsement of Detroit did not prevent other US cities from sending their own delegations to the IOC and asking them to consider their city as a potential Olympic host. In fact, five other US cities bid for the chance to host the XVI Olympiad. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia received 1 vote and went out in the first round. San Francisco also went out in the first round after receiving zero votes. Detroit’s domestic Olympic nemesis Los Angeles received 5 first round votes, 4 second round votes and 5 votes again in the third round where it was eliminated. Detroit also reached the third round of voting receiving 2 votes in the first, and 4 votes in the second and third round respectively. To get the sole nomination from the USOC and still receive less support from the IOC than other US cities must have stung Detroit, but it is difficult for the Motor City to argue that on this occasion the pesky Californians had too much of an adverse effect on the Games coming to Detroit.

From the first round of voting, it was clear that Melbourne was the city to beat. The Australian city received 14 votes in the first round beating Buenos Aries and Mexico City with nine each. Curiously, Mexico City lost 6 votes in the second round tallying only 3 as they were eliminated. Detroit and Los Angeles were then eliminated leaving Melbourne and Buenos Aries in a run off. Melbourne managed to get the votes they needed to win an extremely tight race 21 votes to 20 in the fourth round of voting.[6]

The wrath of many Detroiters was again firmly aimed at those involved with the SCCOG but the reality of the 1940s and 1950s was that the USOC did little to protect its nominated candidate city. For example, Minneapolis’ 1956 bid blatantly undermined the USOC by constantly appealing to the IOC as the higher power and explaining that even though the USOC favors Detroit, the Olympic Invitation Committee of Minneapolis is confident the IOC will see different. There is little respect shown to the Motor City.

Avery Brundage (who was then USOC President) would go on to be one of the most controversial political figures in Olympic history.[7]  He also did little to help Detroit secure the Olympics. He did try in 1949 to show that the USOC supported Detroit as the US candidate to host the Games, but the native Detroiter was at best lukewarm with his tub-thumping. Rather than championing Detroit as the sole US candidate he simply stated that other cities had been asked to withdraw their candidacy to the IOC. He also regularly talked about the US as an obvious choice for the Games; but did not specifically reference the qualities of Detroit. With the advantage of hindsight, it is perhaps fair to say that Brundage saw a city other than Detroit as a more likely home for the next Olympiad to be held in the US.

Detroit’s anger at not getting the 1956 summer Games was palpable. A Detroit Free Press article from 2 May 1949 is full of quotes from Detroit Olympic Committee member Fred Matthaei lamenting the state of the IOC and the USOC; in particular, he is scathing of what he sees as a move away from the amateur ideals of the Olympic movement.

Detroit’s failure to be awarded the 1956 Games is an indication of how far the International Olympic Committee has strayed from the original ideals of the Games. The complete spirit of amateurism for which the Olympics are supposed to stand has been violated. Instead of following an orderly procedure, the award of the Games has been made the occasion for an international auction with the site chosen being the highest bidder.

Matthaei, who personally donated over $100,000 to Detroit’s bids, clearly believes that Melbourne and other cities tried to “buy” the Olympics and is equally scathing of the USOC and Detroit’s domestic rivals.

Buenos Aries, which was just nosed out by Melbourne for the 1956 Games, is an illustration. Col. Juan Peron has authorized $30,000,000 to back his invitation. Melbourne is paying the complete expenses of all members of the International Olympic Committee and a companion to the Games. Los Angeles offered to pay the IOC committee members’ expenses, those of a companion, and to give 50 percent of the gate [to the IOC]. We can’t bid against things like that.

Matthaei’s figures are never proven and are likely to be exaggerated; somewhat understandably given his anger and disappointment at Detroit’s failure. However, we do know that prior to the changing of IOC rules, after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic voting scandal in 1995, corruption was rife and the excessive wining and dining of IOC officials was commonplace. Matthaei went on to lambast the other US cities involved.

Los Angeles has made capital of its staging of the 1932 Games and has commercialized everything connected with the Games down to the Olympic emblem. The Los Angeles bid was submitted by John Garland, a member of the IOC, this in itself is wrong. We have a thorough house-cleaning job which needs to be done in our own ranks. [Minneapolis delegate Albert] Lindley is an employee of the European Recovery Program with headquarters in London. As a result of that office he has contacts and influence in high circles. He hurt us….When the United States couldn’t present a ‘choice city’ to the IOC, we lost all support which had been lined up….The United States Olympic Committee must demonstrate that it, rather than the Los Angeles bloc, is in control of this country’s Olympic action.

As is evident from this interview, Matthaei saved most of his anger for Los Angeles. He is clear that the reason Detroit did not win the Games was because Los Angeles would not abide by the USOC’s agreement. The shenanigans from the west coast were beginning to take their toll on Matthaei, the Detroit Olympic Committee, and on Detroit’s chances of ever hosting the Olympic Games.

It is clear that the USOC needed to get a tight rein on its cities and promote a united front to the IOC. It has (somewhat) managed to do this for every Olympics since 1956; but as I will examine in my next piece the damage to persistent US bidding cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and in particular Detroit, was already done. Could these cities recover and convince the IOC to bring the Olympics to the United States? We know the answer, and, as usual with US Olympic bidding history, Los Angeles is heavily involved.

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

 

Notes:

[1] 1956 is the only time that the Summer Olympics have been officially held in two countries. Due to Australia’s strict quarantine laws the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden. The only US city to bid for the equestrian events was Los Angeles. As an aside, for fans of trivia, the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium held the finals of the sailing events in the Netherlands and the 2012 London Olympics had soccer games in Scotland and Wales (both of which are part of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic team for IOC purposes).

[2] I will not recount all of Brundage’s controversies here except to say that Olympic historians have criticized his insistence that the German Olympic team in 1936 was inclusive, his insistence on amateurism, his admonishment of the Black US athletes in 1968 and 1972, and his handling of the events surrounding the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. Allen Guttmann has written a very interesting monograph on his life and career.

[3] Much to the chagrin of local sportsmen Detroit’s Rouge River was the site of the infamous death of tens of thousands of waterfowl in 1948 (just a year after Detroit’s bid for the 1952 Games) due to the build-up of oil sludge in the river. Perhaps more famously it was also the site of a 1969 incident when oil and chemicals in the water caused the river to engulf in fire sending flames 50 feet into the air.

[4] The 39th session of the International Olympic Committee is perhaps most famous for awarding the 1948 summer Olympics to London without any sort of election. They merely honored the vote of the 38th session held in London in 1939.

[5] Detroit holds the dubious distinction of being the city with the most unsuccessful bids for the summer Olympics to have never actually hosted the Games. The Motor City has officially bid 7 times (1944, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972). Detroit also expressed an interest in hosting the 1948 Games but IOC records do not record them as an official candidate city. Los Angeles has actually bid for the Olympics on more occasions than Detroit but they have the comfort of two successful bids to taper their, to date, 7 unsuccessful candidatures.

[6] The USOC was known as the American Olympic Association (AOA) from 1921 until 1940. From 1940 until 1945 it adopted the name the United States of America Sports Federation (USASF) and then from 1945 until 1961 it went by the name United States Olympic Association (USOA). It has been the USOC since 1961. For the sake of simplicity I will refer to it as the USOC in this article.

[7] Mayor Richard Reading was certainly supportive of Detroit’s late attempt to get the 1940 Olympics as well as their official bid for the 1944 Games. Little Dick, as the 5’ 3” leader was known, was however perhaps not the greatest advocate for bringing the Games to Michigan. Shortly after showing his support he was soundly beaten in the 1940 Mayoral election and was then indicted on federal charges due to his corruption in office. He served over three years in prison and was certainly not involved in any of Detroit’s subsequent bids.

2 thoughts on “How Petty Squabbles And Political Infighting Cost A Generation The Chance To Experience A Summer Olympics In America Or: Does It Always Have To Be Los Angeles?

  1. Pingback: How Petty Squabbles And Political Infighting Cost A Generation The Chance To Experience A Summer Olympics In America Or: Does It Always Have To Be Los Angeles? Part Two: Detroit in the 1960s | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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