Matthaei drove Detroit's Olympic dreams

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Officials with the International Olympic Committee pulled the plug on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, postponing the two-week athletic competition until next year in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak that has engulfed the globe.

According to Japanese reports, the expected cost of staging this summer’s Olympics was approaching $26 billion, nearly four times what was originally forecast. That initial estimate, of course, was eclipsed in about as fast a time as Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt covers the 100 meters.

Tokyo’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 2016 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  1963, weeks before a presidential assassination, 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. 

It was Matthaei’s final Olympic blow, ending hopes of encircling the city in the five Olympic rings. 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,  one wonders if a Summer Olympics would have been a magic elixir for a city in the grips of decline.The world can only wonder at what was about to unfold in Tokyo, the 2020 so-called “winner.”