Detroit: Olympic city?

April 29, 2021
Written By:
Laura Bailey


The fate of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, now scheduled for July 23-Aug. 8, 2021, seems more uncertain than ever, with North Korea reportedly deciding to withdraw because of the pandemic.

Several other test events have reportedly been delayed or canceled, and officials in Osaka, Japan, formally requested that the city’s leg of the torch relay be canceled due to a spike in COVID cases. Tokyo’s predicament over how to safely host the Olympics amid a global pandemic comes at a time when fewer cities are bidding on the Olympics, and this could give cities further pause.

Stefan Szymanski, the Stephen J. Galetti Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan, discusses Detroit’s chances of ever hosting the Olympics and the virtual exhibit he is developing to coincide with the Tokyo games.

Until recently, competition among cities bidding to host the Olympics was fierce. Why is the International Olympic Committee finding it difficult to persuade cities to bid for the Olympics?

The cost of hosting the Olympic games has escalated in the era of television, as cities and nations compete for the privilege, and the IOC demands more and more grandiose accommodation. In recent years, the IOC has found it harder and harder to attract bidders as taxpayers have balked at the expense, and the fact that purpose-built facilities on an Olympian scale can seldom be fully used after the event.

With only two bidders for the 2024 games after all the other cities withdrew, the IOC asked Paris and Los Angeles to each take one of 2024 and 2028 rather than risk having no bidders for 2028.

Could Detroit host the Olympics one day?

Detroit is remarkably well endowed with potential sports facilities within close proximity to each other–Ford Field, Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena, combined with the spaces in the TCF Center and the opportunity to use Belle Isle and the Detroit River for many events. These spaces could already stage most Olympic events.

The road infrastructure of the downtown is ideally suited to moving large numbers of people quickly in and out. The real obstacle to Detroit is perception–and this is where the IOC could really be a game changer. Instead of focusing on glamourous cities that don’t need a boost–LA, Paris, Rio, London, Beijing–the IOC could reinvigorate the games by positioning them as a means to boost a city that really needs it.

Moreover, having the games in Detroit would create the opportunity for cross-border cooperation with Windsor, and would be a source of pride for Michigan and a magnet for sports-mad Midwesterners.

Detroit has bid on the Olympics before. What’s the history?

Detroit has bid on the Olympics seven times and two other times informally expressed interest. The first time the possibility was raised was in 1920, with plans to build a stadium to host the 1928 games.

The first formal bid took place in London in 1939, bidding for the 1944 games (not held due to World War II). Detroit was the officially supported U.S bid of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972.

The city came closest in bids for the 1956 and 1968 games, the latter supported by a video message from President John F. Kennedy. Detroit narrowly lost out to Mexico City, and it will always be one of the great imponderables of history–would the events of 1967 in Detroit have played out the same way if the city had been on the verge of hosting the Olympics.

Do you think that Detroit’s chances will improve now that fewer cities are bidding on the Olympics?

I think the IOC owes Detroit. Detroit stood in line for 30 years and deserved its shot. It deserves it still. Now would be a good time for the IOC to rethink its strategy of putting the games in glam locations that don’t really need it–and making more of a grassroots celebration. As the IOC adapts to the changing environment, Detroit’s chances are likely to improve.

Does Detroit have the hotel space to host an Olympics?

Detroit has a lot of possible accommodation sites within 50 miles, but a lot fewer five-star hotel rooms, which is where the Olympic bigwigs usually like to stay. This is just one example of the ways in which a Detroit games could bring the IOC back in touch with its real audience.

Can you talk a bit about your exhibit?

The exhibit was originally intended to be a physical exhibit at the Detroit Public Library, to coincide with the Tokyo games. Because of the pandemic, we’ve decided to use a virtual platform. The exhibit will discuss the history of Detroit’s failed Olympic bid, the concept of a future Detroit Olympics, Detroit Olympians and Olympic architecture, past and future. We may look at offering a physical exhibit if or when in the future, it’s deemed safe in light of the ongoing pandemic.