By Gavin Strassel, UAW Archivist
With the Pyeongchang Olympics upon us, this map revisits one of Detroit’s great
“what-if” moments, the nearly successful bid to host the 1968 summer games. This
map comes from a booklet titled XVIII Olympiad 1964 in the Jerome Cavanagh
Papers at the Reuther Library. Originally drafted in 1959, it was reused by the Detroit Olympic Committee in 1963 for their proposal to host the 1968 games.
A wide variety of institutions offered the use of their facilities. City parks, notably Belle Isle and Rouge Park, would host aquatic events like swimming and rowing. Local universities played a vital role, with University of Detroit-Mercy’s facilities hosting basketball and Wayne State’s campus housing the athlete’s Olympic Village. Not surprisingly, professional sports venues like the Olympia and Tiger Stadium
(not pictured) also were in the proposal. The event was a true public-private
partnership, with unified buy-in from many of Detroit’s largest institutions.
The other item of note is the stadium located on the fairgrounds in northern Detroit. A 100,000-seat behemoth, this stadium was the largest single expense in the
proposal and would have served as the centerpiece to the games. In an era when
Olympic host cities rely on expensive new athletic faculties, the small amount of new construction demonstrates the fiscal viability of the Detroit proposal.
Within the archival collection of former Mayor Cavanagh, it is easy to see why
Detroit nearly swayed the International Olympic Committee. They present a
modern, culturally minded city on the rise, with the perfect geography to host all the aquatic and terrestrial games within a 15-mile radius. Despite this, Mexico City became the first Latin American city to land the event. Detroit made bids in the following years, but none came as close. One cannot help but wonder how hosting such a large-scale and illustrious event would have shaped the following turbulent decades in the Motor City.
Would the games have been the financial catalyst local leaders promoted it as? Or, would the massive investment have made the city’s social and financial issues even more entrenched, creating an even worse bottoming-out?