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The Light (Torch Division) That Failed
Hal Higdon
November 04, 1963
They carried the flame from the Coast to Michigan. It died at times—and so did Detroit's big hopes
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November 04, 1963

The Light (torch Division) That Failed

They carried the flame from the Coast to Michigan. It died at times—and so did Detroit's big hopes

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When the International Olympic Committee gathered in Baden-Baden, Germany a fortnight ago to award the 1968 Games to one of four petitioning cities, committee members found themselves reeling before the pitch made by Detroit. The Motor City contingent arrived in Baden-Baden 45 strong, towing along a mayor, a governor and enough movie footage to film Cleopatra all over again. They assailed the IOC with a multitude of speeches, lobbied until their tonsils ached and threatened the eyesight of everyone for miles around with photographic evidence of the wonders of southern Michigan. In the end, the IOC awarded the 1968 Olympics to Mexico City, a long shot because of its mile-high altitude. Mexico, with virtually no "presentation," won by simply asking and answering a question.

"Altitude?" a Mexico City representative asked one day. "Why, the altitude won't bother the athletes."

"It won't?" said the IOC. "Well, in that case you're it."

Detroit's mistake may have been in not carrying its Hollywood presentation just a bit farther and bringing along its Hollywood-born Olympic torch. As any boy scout knows, fire may be produced simply by rubbing two sticks together, particularly matchsticks, and in retrospect it seems a little foolish that Detroit decided to import fire from Los Angeles, 2,600 miles away. But the Los Angeles Coliseum was the site of the last Olympic Games held in the U.S., back in 1932, and Detroit developed this thing about the symbolism—not to mention the publicity value—of carrying an Olympic torch from Los Angeles to Detroit by a relay of runners. So they fired it up (the lighting actually took place at the Los Angeles City Hall instead of at the Coliseum, but what the heck) and the runners headed East.

I first heard about the relay when, along with other members of the University of Chicago Track Club, I received this letter from Coach Ted Haydon: "Everyone across the country has climbed on the bandwagon [very few of the organizers could run far with the torch] and we have been asked to cooperate by taking the distance from Cicero, Illinois to Dyer, Indiana between 4 p.m. and midnight on Tuesday, October 8. Please indicate your availability on the enclosed card."

This sounded reasonable enough, but as the torch approached Illinois, word spread that instead of early evening our chore would come in the early morning—from 2 to 6 a.m.

"Well, if you really need me, call me," said ex-Olympic runner Ted Wheeler, among others. Then he went home and disconnected the telephone.

Paul O'Shea, a Bell Telephone public-relations man and local AAU long-distance-running chairman, had charge of nursing the torch along the highways of Illinois. Plans were to route the torch past Chicago's City Hall, enabling Mayor Richard J. Daley to say a few appropriate words. But the city fathers frowned on any interruption of the rush-hour traffic flow. They had a better idea. Bring the torch through town at 4 in the morning, they insisted. In Chicago especially, you can't fight city hall.

"Will any officials be on hand?" I asked O'Shea.

"We couldn't even get a street cleaner out at that hour in the morning," he said.

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