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What if … Detroit hosted the 1968 Olympics

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Currently, Brazil is receiving international attention for hosting the World Cup. In 1968, many of Detroit’s politicians, businesspeople, and sports enthusiasts envisioned a similar spotlight on the city. Detroit made a bid to host the 1968 XIX Olympic Games, however, Mexico City was chosen as the host site. The 1968 Olympics were held from October 12th through October 27th. Detroit native and basketball legend Spencer Haywood (of the Pershing Doughboys) led the US team to a Gold medal. George Foreman made his world introduction taking the Gold as a heavyweight boxer. Perhaps most memorably, US Track & Field legends John Carlos and Tommie Smith delivered the iconic Black Power fist pose during the medal ceremony. I believe if Detroit had hosted the 1968 Olympics, it would have changed the course of the city’s history and further influenced national and global politics and culture.

 

Spencer Haywood, Tiger Stadium, John Carlos & Tommie Smith
Spencer Haywood, Tiger Stadium, John Carlos & Tommie Smith

1968 was a pivotal year nation-wide. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Richard Nixon was elected as US President. The tragedy of the Vietnam War carried on, highlighted by the TET Offensive. These events impacted America in various ways, but all were interconnected to the struggles against American injustice. The Civil Rights Movement challenged the hypocrisy of American Law, strategically appealing to the empathy of White Americans via a shared sense of injustice. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a catalyst for the blossoming Black Power Movement, generating a more aggressive focus on building independence and solidarity amongst Black Americans.

By 1968, Detroit was deeply entrenched in both movements. Only one year earlier, the 1967 Detroit riots (or, as many here refer to it, the Rebellion) had driven a wedge throughout Metro-Detroit that continues to divide the region racially, culturally, and economically. Hosting the Olympic Games a year after the most devastating and costly American riot could have created an environment primed for healing, solidarity, and cooperation throughout Metro Detroit. The City of Detroit would have had to address the blight and ruins from the 1967 riots. This influx of contracting would require significant community engagement. I believe that with the involvement of the community, the voiceless feeling some Detroiters had would have begun to be addressed. Hiring, contracting, and planning within Detroit’s economy could have jump-started the process of finding solutions for the damaged communities affected by the 1967 riot.

The international presence throughout Detroit would have created even more opportunity for economic recovery and growth. I find that Detroit culture is often neglected by Detroiters, but history has shown that our food, music, and design of all kinds have impacted the world. Tourism and international business play a major part in that cultural exchange, and hosting the 1968 Olympics would have brought unprecedented global exposure to Detroit’s unique culture. In 1968, Motown Records and many subsidiary labels were at the heights of their success. Bob Seger was a year away from releasing his first album “Ramblin Gamblin Man” (my personal favorite). Aretha Franklin was reaching further musical success with two album releases and hit songs. Culturally speaking, Detroit had a feel and look that would have captured the world in a single visit.

Olympia Stadium, Robert DeNiro in 'Raging Bull,' 1984 Detroit Tigers
Olympia Stadium, Robert DeNiro in ‘Raging Bull,’ 1984 Detroit Tigers

In 1968, Detroit sports were held in three locations; Cobo Arena, Detroit Olympia Stadium, and Tiger Stadium. Legend has it that Cobo Hall and Arena were built in hopes of landing the Olympic games. The Detroit Pistons began playing basketball at Cobo Arena in the 1960s, soon after it was built. Detroit Olympia Stadium hosted the Detroit Red Wings, and the legendary boxing match between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta that inspired Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Tiger Stadium was recognized historically as one of the best baseball stadiums in the world. At the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the Tigers took the field for over 80 years. In 1968, Willie Horton and Denny McLain led the Detroit Tigers to won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals mere days before the Olympics started. Imagine the local, national, and global impact of the world witnessing the Detroit Tigers win the World Series only weeks before Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered their historical Black Power salute in the very same Tiger Stadium. The pride and economic influx amongst the citizens of Detroit  may have tipped the scales to enable the healing between communities to begin.

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