A man who championed Detroit's Olympic dreams


 By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

With the Summer Olympics less than a month away, officials with the International Olympic Committee undoubtedly wish they could have a do-over of their 2009 decision to award the quadrennial event to Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian city that has been the epicenter of the Zika virus and a series of man-made crises that threatens to make a mockery of the two-week athletic competition.

Rio’s winning bid back then came with an expected price tag of $14.4 billion, a cost that reportedly was eclipsed as fast as Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt covers the 100 meters.

Cost overruns coupled with political chaos, economic turmoil, and serious pollution, health and security concerns have Rio organizers limping to the starting line on August 5 when the Olympic flame will be lit in Maracana Stadium.

Rio’s pain may well have been felt in Chicago had the Windy City prevailed in the Olympic bidding in 2009. It was the U.S. choice to host the Summer Games and surprisingly was eliminated in the first round of voting despite personal pitches from such Chicagoans as President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and TV and movie star Oprah Winfrey. Tokyo and Madrid also were in the running to host the event that seemingly has been marred by unexpected troubles since the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympics in Munich.

While Chicago can collectively wonder “what  might have been” if it had been chosen as the 2016 host, Detroit must have harbored similar thoughts in 1968 when Mexico City was the site of the Summer Games.

Detroit, thanks to the tireless efforts of a University of Michigan product, was a finalist for the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. After finishing a distant second to Tokyo as the 1964 Olympic host, Detroit was considered the favorite for the 1968 Summer Games when the voting rolled around in the fall of 1963.

Its competition included Lyon, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City, and while Detroit lacked some of the beauty and glamour of the other cities, Olympic observers reportedly were impressed with the existing athletic venues and the community/business support for the 1968 bid.

The man behind the Detroit effort was a native son, Frederick Matthaei, who formed the Detroit Olympic Committee in 1936, the year that the Summer Games would become a hideous propagandist tool of Nazi Germany.

A product of Detroit Western High School, Matthaei was born in 1892, the son of German immigrants. Following high school, he briefly attended Michigan State University before transferring to U-M, where his name will be etched forever among the school’s most influential and generous alumni.

As a youth, Matthaei worked as a grocery delivery boy at his family’s general store in Detroit and briefly served as an accountant following graduation from the U-M. He eventually built a fortune as the founder of American Metal Products Co., an auto supplier based in the Motor City.

He would use his wealth to fund a number of philanthropic causes, particularly at the U-M where he donated large tracts of land that would become home on the east side of Ann Arbor to Radrick Farms Golf Course and Matthaei Botanical Gardens. He also made sizeable donations to Wayne State University, which named an athletic complex after him in 1965, and was instrumental in funding the construction of Cobo Hall.

But as an avid sportsman and a former part owner of the Detroit Lions, Matthaei had a lifelong interest in bringing the Olympics to his home city, and reportedly spent heavily to make his dream become a reality. A veteran of the U.S. Navy during World War I, Matthaei personified the Olympic spirit, which values participation over winning.

In 1936, as a second world war loomed with the rise of fascism, Matthaei formed the Detroit Olympic Committee and served as its chairman until 1964, overseeing repeated bids by the city to host the Summer Games.

He envisioned a Detroit Olympics that also could possibly draw upon athletic sites in Ann Arbor and Windsor, adding spice to a bid that would feature the construction of a 110,000-seat stadium at the State Fairgrounds. The new complex would complement the use of existing facilities such as Tiger Stadium, the University of Detroit’s Memorial Building (now known as Calihan Hall), and pools at Rouge Park and Wayne State University. The rowing and sailing events would be staged on the Detroit River near Belle Isle, showcasing the beauty of an international waterway bordering two North American countries.

The city’s bid was bolstered by several political heavyweights, as then President John F. Kennedy and Michigan Governor George Romney threw their support behind the effort with JFK telling the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Detroit would give “the warmest and most cordial welcome in the U.S.”

But in the fall of 1963, just weeks before a presidential assassination would rock the nation, the IOC snuffed out dreams of an Olympic flame in Detroit, voting 30-14 to award the bid to long-shot Mexico City. It was a stunning setback for Detroit, which two years later would make another attempt to secure the Summer Games, the 1972 version that would be awarded to Munich. 

For Matthaei, it was his final Olympic blow, ending his hopes of encircling the city in the five Olympic rings that symbolically bind a world together. Several years later, the city of his birth would erupt in flames, the site of riots that would claim 43 lives and send Detroit into a downward spiral.

Now, if offered the chance to rewrite Detroit’s history, one wonders if a Summer Olympics would have been a magic elixir for a city in the grips of decline. It’s a question that Chicago need not ask of itself as the world watches in wonder at what is about to unfold in Rio, the 2016 so-called “winner.”