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"City of Champions" combines Detroit sports history with the city's highs and lows

Detroit loves its sports, and sometimes even loves the results. The new book City of Champions details pivotal Detroit sports moments spanning more than 250 years, and documents how sports history is woven into the city's overall successes and struggles.

The book begins in 2017 with the opening of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, and the promises to build a thriving new neighborhood around it, which are still unfulfilled today. In a series of 30 stories, City of Champions travels backward through time. It's earliest story is about a pivotal lacrosse game in 1763

A name to celebrate the city

book cover for City of Champions
Credit The New Press

Co-authors Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck appeared on Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition. Szymanski explained that the title for the book comes from a name given to Detroit in the 1930s. First, the Tigers won the World Series in 1935.

“Then the Detroit Lions, won their first NFL championship, and the young hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings, won their first Stanley Cup [in 1936],” Szymanski said. “This led to the governor of Michigan declaring Champions Day for the city of Detroit. And for many years afterwards, Detroit was widely referred to as the 'City of Champions,' although that sort of died out in recent decades.”

In their research, Szymanksi and Weineck found that  sports often mirrored life in general. One tough moment of symmetry came when the 2008 Detroit Lions failed to win a game. The team finished with a record of 0-16 as the Great Recession dealt terrible blows to Detroit's auto industry and the U.S. economy as a whole. 

Just short of Olympic glory

In addition to stories of Detroit's pro teams and its major contributions to the sport of boxingCity of Champions also details the long, but ultimately unsuccesful attempt to host the Olympics. 

Detroit bid to become the host city for the Olympics for every games from 1940 to 1972. (The games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II.) The city narrowly missed - some might say was robbed - in the bids for the 1956 and 1968 games.

The arc of Detroit's story during that roughly 30-year period or so of bidding is dramatic. It's a city on the rise. It then becomes the "Arsenal of Democracy" by making contributions during World War II. But by the end of that bidding process, Detroit is at the start of what would become a dramatic decline. 

Szymanski said those failed Olympic bids reflect a key issue for Detroit in that time period. 

"One of the great missed opportunities of Detroit's history is really its failure to build an infrastructure that was commensurate with its immense industrial power. Detroit is, for a while, immensely wealthy. And had that wealth been diverted into beautifying the city and to create facilities and turn it into a place which would be a more attractive place to live with sports facilities and the like, that would have facilitated its transformation," he said. 

He added that a former Olympic host city might offer an idea of what's possible. 

"Barcelona, which we now think of as being a very attractive city to visit because it's a beautiful place," Szymanksi said. "A lot of that was focused around the reconstruction for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. What people often forget is that prior to that, Barcelona was a rust belt industrial city. It wasn't an attractive place."

Looking past perception

From national media outlets' portrayal of Detroit in 2004 after the "Malace at the Palace" incident during a game between the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, to the fine lines legendary boxer Joe Louis walked as a pioneering African-American figure, public perception is a recurring theme in the book. 

Weineck and Syzmanski are University of Michigan professors and grew up in Europe. They're also long-time Ann Arbor residents and both are white. Knowing that Detroiters can be frustrated by outsiders telling the city's stories, Weineck said they took extra care in their approach.

"Stefan and I talked about this a lot," she said. "We did live in Detroit for a summer, which, of course, is still not the same as actually living in Detroit. And we tried very hard to listen to the voices of Detroiters, to listen to Black scholars, to read Black newspapers, to really learn how people in Detroit see their city rather than how we as outsiders come into the city. Whether we have succeeded in that is really up to our readers to decide."      

Read excerpts from City of Champions: A History of Triumph and Defeat in Detroit

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of the page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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