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

By Benjamin Dettmar

An artist’s illustration of the proposed Olympic Stadium for Detroit’s 1968 bid. The Stadium would have been located at the State Fair Grounds on Grand River in the heart of the city. Photo author’s own.

An artist’s illustration of the proposed Olympic Stadium for Detroit’s 1968 bid. The Stadium would have been located at the State Fair Grounds on Grand River in the heart of the city. Photo author’s own.

This is the second of two articles that looks 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 concentrated on the 1940s and 1950s; this article will have an emphasis on Detroit, the bridesmaid of Olympic cities[1], which also happens to be the focus of my research.

1960: The Games Finally Arrive In The Eternal City

With the 1956 Games being held in far-flung Melbourne; Australia it was always likely that a European city would win the right to host the 1960 Games. One imagines that the Detroit Olympic Committee (DOC) realized this, even if they did not publically admit it. Before Melbourne was awarded the Games the Olympics had only been held outside of Europe on two previous occasions (although Tokyo; Japan were initially awarded the 1940 Games) and had never been away from Europe for two consecutive instances. The final voting for 1960 reflected the political realities of the IOC at the time.

Unsurprisingly the city of Rome; Italy was selected to host the summer Olympics at the IOC’s 50th session in Paris France in June 1955. In all 7 cities put in bids for the Games with Tokyo (4 votes), Mexico City; Mexico (6 votes), and Brussels; Belgium (6 votes) being eliminated in the first round of voting. Budapest; Hungary received 8 first round votes but only 1 vote in the second round and was eliminated. Detroit’s 6 first round votes were enough to get them through to the second round of voting where they picked up 5 more votes for a total of 11; not enough to keep them in the race.[2] Rome’s biggest rival was Lausanne; Switzerland, home of the IOC. Lausanne received 14 first round votes, to Rome’s 15, 21 second round votes to Rome’s 26, and 24 third round votes to Rome’s 35.

Rome, also played a politically savvy bidding game in the lead up to the 1955 vote in Paris. The Rome bid brochure begins by referencing their experience and interactions with the IOC. Before their successful 1960 bid Rome had been a candidate city in 1908; in fact Rome won the bid but the Games were moved to London after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. They had also bid for the 1924 Games, losing out to Paris; the 1936 Games, losing out to Berlin, the 1940 Games losing out to Tokyo (and Helsinki); and the 1944 Games losing out to London. Although the 1940 and 1944 Games were never held this experience means that Rome had bid on five previous occasions; giving them a greater Olympic bidding pedigree than Detroit. Rome’s brochure went on to namecheck Baron Pierre de Coubertin in an obvious, but effective, attempt to curry favor with the IOC.

In the now distant past de Coubertin on many occasions visited Rome where his ancestors sleep in the Ara Coeli church on the Capitol. He felt the fascination of ancient civilisations: he was rich in audacious initiatives and generous ardour it was his desire that the Games be held in Rome after the initial Olympiad in Athens and to that end he dedicated all his energies….1908 is a long time ago: Italy has progressively felt the benefit of the Olympic Idea; Rome has grown and improved in every respect and today is in a position to carry out the early wish of de Coubertin. We all know that in his generous ardour for all the civilized World this illustrious son of France intended that the Games be held in other cities also both inside and outside Europe: noble cities worthy of welcoming the Olympic Games, but allow me to recall that among the cities he had in mind Rome held first place and that in accepting our candidature the Olympic Committee would render high honour to its Founder.

The almost religious worship of de Coubertin shows that Rome recognized the esteem with which the Baron was still held; the discussion of his family being buried in Rome and his support for previous Rome bids are something which other cities naturally struggled to compete against.

Aside from the grandstanding over the legacy of de Coubertin the aspect of Rome’s bid that was sure to impress the IOC, and with which Detroit could not compete, was the already completed stadium that Rome could offer as the centrepiece for the Games. To this day funding, building, and the legacy of an Olympic stadium is a key element of any Olympic bid; the fact that Rome could offer the Stadio Olympico (called the the Stadio dei Centomila until Rome was officially awarded the Games) was a huge asset to the Eternal City’s bid.

One of the enduring images of the 1960 Rome Olympics. The USA’s Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) posing with his Light Heavyweight Gold Medal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the enduring images of the 1960 Rome Olympics. The USA’s Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) posing with his Light Heavyweight Gold Medal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An interesting coda to the 1960 Olympic voting story is that a US city did win the rights to host the winter Olympics that year. The 50th IOC session in Paris also saw IOC members vote for the site of the 1960 winter Olympics a vote which was won by Californian city Squaw Valley. The Lake Tahoe resort narrowly beat Innsbruck; Austria by 32 votes to 30 in the second round of voting. St. Moritz; Switzerland, Garmisch-Partenkirchen; Germany, and Karachi; Pakistan were eliminated in the first round.

The previous 5 winter Olympics had been awarded to European cities so it was perhaps not a surprise that the IOC moved away from Europe for the 1960 Games. The US had previously hosted the winter Olympics in 1932 when Lake Placid welcomed the world to the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. The US cities of Yosemite Valley; California, Lake Tahoe; California, Bear Mountain; New York, Duluth; Minnesota, Minneapolis; Minnesota, Denver; Colorado, and Colorado Springs; Colorado had also previously bid for the right to host the winter Olympics.

A Detroit Free Press article by Sports Editor Lyall Smith entitled “Roby Fears for Olympics” shows how, in typical bullish fashion, IOC member and Vice President of the USOC Doug Roby pooh-poohs the achievements of the Californian city in winning the Games and frets over what it means for Detroit going forward.

We [USOC] had to give them a deadline of this [1956] April 3 for raising enough money to start their construction program. All they have now is $1,000,000 appropriation by the state of California. They are seeking an additional $4,000,000 when the legislature convenes next month. That would give them five million. I frankly think they need twice that much if they are going to put on a real show for the world. We have logical reasons to believe the 1964 Games will come to the States. If Squaw Valley is anything but perfect, I’m afraid of what might happen. Squaw Valley made a terrific presentation to us [but] [f]rankly, we didn’t feel it had much of a chance to sell itself to the International Selection Committee. But it did….I don’t believe Squaw Valley will get enough from TV sponsorship to get them off the financial hook. If they don’t get it, I am hopeful that they will gracefully withdraw sponsorship of the 1960 Games. It will be better for all parties if that happens.

Lyall Smith goes on to suggest that Squaw Valley was awarded the winter Olympics as a consolation prize for the US, as Detroit missed out on the summer Games, and suggests that the city has only “a valley and some mountains. No town, no hotels, no resort, practically nothing.” This is a damning indictment of Squaw Valley and is a very unfair assessment of the Californian city. The Winter Olympics was very much the poor relation to the summer Olympics at this time so perhaps Roby’s reluctance to celebrate an American achievement can be understood. Although his words, coming as they do from an IOC member and Vice President of the USOC, seem to betray his jealousy and his animosity toward California.

The Detroit Olympic Committee’s final act of the 1960 Olympic bidding cycle was an August 3, 1955 letter to Avery Brundage congratulating the IOC and Rome and declaring that Detroit will most definitely bid again for subsequent Games.

While our disappointment was naturally keen, we do feel that that the success of the 1960 Olympiad at Rome is assured—and will raise the standards for a future Olympiad to which the people of the City of Detroit still most earnestly aspire.

1964: The Olympics Go To Asia For The First Time

Bidding for the Games of the XVIII Olympiad took place in Munich, Germany in 1959 at the 55th session of the IOC. The IOC continued the geographic spread of the Games by selecting Tokyo to host. Tokyo won the IOC’s election after only 1 round of voting receiving 34 votes compared to Detroit’s 10, Vienna; Austria’s 9, and Brussels’ 5. There was a lot of emotion involved in the awarding of the games to Tokyo. Brundage continued his legacy of being the IOC President who took the Games worldwide and when Yoshinori Sakai lit the flame a “new Japan” was introduced to the world.

The DOC were now in a place where they had a legitimate belief that the Games would come to Detroit. Their bidding material made very clear that they were the only US candidate city (Chicago, LA, and Minneapolis also put forth bids to the USOC). They acquiesced to the IOC by agreeing to include volleyball, water polo, archery, and handball in their bid after initially saying they would not include the events. Importantly they were no longer plagued by bids from other US Cities (particularly Los Angeles) trying to usurp the authority of the USOC by going straight to the IOC. With an American as IOC President and the number of years since the US had hosted the Games increasing the Motor City seemed poised to finally get the greatest sports prize of all. The DOC had however managed to make an enemy of the Detroit born IOC President Avery Brundage. Doug Roby of the DOC and USOC had always had a frosty relationship with Brundage (particularly over the inclusion of the Republic of China [later called Chinese Taipei]) and the IOC President clearly had little sympathy for his native city. In an August 19, 1959 letter to IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer he stated:

If and when you make a record of Roby’s remarks on the Chinese question at Munich, I would like to have a copy. He got very angry when I told him what he said. The Detroit newspapers have been filled with nasty personal attacks on me because they did not get the 1964 Games. They think because I was born in Detroit I should have delivered the Games to them. After the presentation they made, I am surprised that they received any votes.

The Detroit Press was indeed damning of Brundage and the IOC and were beginning to question whether Detroit could ever stage a successful bid. The allure of the Games was beginning to wear thin for residents of Detroit and other US cities were starting to question the USOC’s backing of the Motor City. But the DOC was a resolute as ever. Of particular interest was that the past 5 summer Olympics had now gone Europe, Europe, Europe, Australia, Europe, and Asia; 1968 would be 36 years since the summer Olympics had been in the United States…surely 1968 was going to be their year!

1968: Detroit’s Best Chance?

Detroit’s bid to host the Olympics almost came to fruition in 1968. The Games of XIX Olympiad were to be the closest that Detroit would come to hosting the event and in the build up to the decision (where the Games were given to Mexico City at the 60th IOC Session in Baden Baden; West Germany in 1963) Detroiters and the USOC were convinced that it was Detroit’s turn to be the host city.

In reality Detroit did not come much closer to hosting the XIX Olympiad than they had in the past. When the IOC met on 18 October 1963 the decision was made in the first round to award the Games to Mexico City. The Mexican capital got 30 votes in the first round compared to Detroit’s 14, Lyon; France got 12 and Buenos Aires; Argentina got 2. Yet the 1968 Games have gone down in folklore as being the Olympics that Detroit were destined to host.

Problems began for Detroit long before the 60th IOC Session in Baden Baden. The Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG) reacted with anger when the USOC awarded Detroit the honor of being the US bidding city for the 1968 Games. Ralph Chick, Executive Security for SCCOG, wrote directly to Otto Mayer asking for clarification on the IOC’s rules about only allowing one city per IOC member to bid. Lee Combs of the SCCOG wrote a 4 page missive to every member of the USOC, and various IOC members, that highlighted in great detail what the SCCOG saw as the “unlawful”, “political”, and “personal”, decision to award Detroit the right to represent the USOC over Los Angeles. The California city threatened legal action over the selection of Detroit and indeed caused the USOC to reevaluate the two cities (they again selected Detroit).

Despite the protests from California Detroit went to Baden Baden with great optimism; even Detroit’s newspapers who a few years earlier had begun to doubt the viability of their city were cautiously declaring Detroit as favorites to get the Games. When Mexico City won after only one round of voting the DOC and the Detroit press found many reasons to blame the IOC and Mexico City. Accusations of bribery and deviant fraternizing were commonplace. It was suggested that Mexico City officials had changed their bid at the last minute after seeing what Detroit had to offer and that officials from the Central American nation had spent the 24 hours before candidate city presentations wining and dining IOC officials. How much of this is true and how much is sour grapes is difficult to accurately measure but it would seem that despite being seen as Detroit’s best chance to host the Games 1968 was never going to be successful for the Motor City.

In a letter to Detroit resident Stephen Azarovitz Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, quite reasonably, suggests that the IOC wanted to award the Games to a city and country that had yet to host the Olympics.

It appears that the International Olympic Committee wanted to hold the games in a nation which had never had them before. The games not only had never been held in Mexico but never in any other Latin American country either.

Of all of the sour grapes to come out of Detroit these words from the Mayor’s office could well ring true. IOC Presidents (along with other leaders of large international organizations) have long sought to take mega-events beyond their traditional strong hold. Sepp Blatter, former President of FIFA, recently oversaw the awarding of the World Cup to Russia and Qatar for example. It should not be overlooked that IOC President Avery Brundage wanted to be seen as the man who took the Games to Latin America. Brundage himself was still lukewarm at the prospect of a Detroit candidacy. In correspondence to Otto Mayer after the 60th IOC session Brundage says:

I note in one of the newspaper clippings that Lyon credits the victory of Mexico City to my propaganda. As a matter of fact, I voted for Detroit, although I didn’t think they would get the Games.

In a letter to DOC chairman Fred Matthaei Brundage goes on to explain his reasoning in great detail.

The Olympic Games belong to the world—East and West, North and South; hot and cold, wet and dry, high and low….

There are as many or more Spanish speaking [National Olympic Committees] NOCs as there are speaking any other language. No Games have ever been staged in a Spanish speaking country before. No Games have ever been held in any of the score of Latin American countries. The facilities in Mexico City are already there and do not have to be constructed. Six million people live and work in Mexico City and both Pan American and Central American Games have been held there, so the altitude question is not too significant.

Mexico is a developing country, with an excellent contemporary Olympic sport program. Both the United States and France have already staged two sets of Games.

Both Detroit and Lyon were handicapped by NATO actions barring East Germans.

The friction or malaise between the French Government and the French Olympic Committee did not help Lyon.

Detroit suffered because of the poorly staged Pan American Games in Chicago in 1959, also the fact that the United States is severely criticized abroad because of the athletic scholarships and the commercialization of college sport and also by publically concerning military athletic subsidy. The peculiar United States foreign policy for the last thirty years, which has lavishly spread hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the world but has left a lack of confidence abroad in the United States, did not help Detroit.

The spectacular Detroit presentation featured by President Kennedy may have overawed the spectators and the committee, but the simple and dignified appeal by five members of Mexican Olympic Committee was very effective.

The IOC has always been dominated by its European members and the accusations of anti-Americanism and perhaps a malaise at the continued presence of Detroit as the USOC’s choice city are real. Detroit in the 1960s was also at a crossroads socially. De facto housing segregation had helped to create a schism in the city and many of Detroit’s black residents vehemently protested events such as the Olympic Torch relay that the DOC organized. 1968 could have been an opportunity to create affordable housing for Detroit residents but instead the Olympic village was to be sold to Wayne State University if Detroit’s bid was successful.

The “Victory Salute” statue by artist Rigo 23 at San Jose State University depicts Tommie Smith (Gold) and John Carlos (Bronze) in their iconic pose at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The podium of the Silver medal winner, Australian athlete Peter Norman, is purposefully left blank so that visitors can stand there and feel what Norman (who supported Smith and Carlos) felt on that day. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The “Victory Salute” statue by artist Rigo 23 at San Jose State University depicts Tommie Smith (Gold) and John Carlos (Bronze) in their iconic pose at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The podium of the Silver medal winner, Australian athlete Peter Norman, is purposefully left blank so that visitors can stand there and feel what Norman (who supported Smith and Carlos) felt on that day. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As historians we have to rely on facts and cannot play the “what if” game but a successful Detroit bid would have seen the Motor City host the Games in the middle of the Civil Rights era just 1 year after the city exploded in rebellion in 1967 and could have seen one of the most iconic Olympic images of all time the Black Solidarity Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos occur in the Motor City. The city was also in the midst of “white flight” to the suburbs and was dealing with the deindustrialization of the auto industry. How the city would have coped with the summer Olympics and all the infrastructure issues, costs, and media attention that comes with that responsibility is a fascinating topic to try and comprehend.

Always The Bridesmaid

Detroit left Baden Baden with yet another failed Olympic bid to their name. The majority of the DOC disbanded leaving Doug Roby to reorganize and continue his lifelong fight to bring the Games to Detroit. By the time of the 64th IOC session in Rome in April 1966 Roby was President of the USOC and a high-ranking US official in the IOC. He spearheaded yet another campaign to bring the Games to Detroit but the heart had been torn out of the City’s bidding team and he had little support from the city, press, and residents of Detroit. Brundage could not be relied upon to use his power as IOC President to influence the members and with the Games having just been held in neighboring Mexico City Detroit’s 1972 bid is more of a footnote than anything else. Roby appeared in front of the IOC—again, the USOC (much to the chagrin of Los Angeles) gave its backing to Detroit—again, and Detroit failed to win the election—again. Detroit was the first and only city to be eliminated in the first round of voting where it received only 6 votes and lost in a run-off election to Montreal; Canada who also received 6 votes. Munich; West Germany won the election outright in the second round of voting with 31 votes to Madrid; Spain’s 16, and Montreal’s 13. Roby immediately expressed his desire to go again to the IOC with a Detroit bid in 1976 but the great tub-thumper of the Motor City surely now knew that the game was up and never again has Detroit bid for the Olympics.

The summer Games did of course come back to the United States in 1984 when Los Angeles (one can only imagine what Roby made of this) hosted the Games for the second time. Interestingly, Los Angeles had failed bids in 1976 losing out to Montreal (when Denver initially won the right to host the winter Olympics before reneging on their promise to the IOC) and 1980 when they lost the election to Moscow; Soviet Union (although Lake Placid; New York was awarded the winter Olympics) before winning the 1984 Games.

Detroit’s 7 official bids show great planning, hard-work, and dedication by members of the DOC and the Detroit community but ultimately the Motor City could not overcome anti-American sentiments, a desire to bring the Games to new pastures, a European dominated IOC, its own internal problems, the lack of an already operational Olympic Stadium, a native son as IOC president who was (at best) lukewarm to the idea of Detroit getting the Games, and the petty challenges of fellow US cities. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride; Detroit’s glorious failures ensured that an entire generation of US sport fans were unable to witness the summer Olympic Games on American soil.

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


[1] 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.

[2] The vagaries of Olympic voting are worthy of an entire post in and of themselves. For now I will simply explain that Detroit made it through to the second round of voting after a run-off election using the Hare Rule or Hare Method of conducting an election.

One thought 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? Part Two: Detroit in the 1960s

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s