Hosting the Olympic Games is a prestigious honor that cities around the world compete for with as much stamina and finesse as any world-class athlete. But just as with the sporting events they hope to celebrate, there can only be one winner, and when it comes to choosing a host city there is no silver medal.
Since the birth of the modern Games in 1896, several cities have submitted Olympic bid after Olympic bid, only to see their dreams of glory continuously dashed. Detroit alone has been rejected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) a whopping seven times.
These cities may be some of the losing-est Olympic hopefuls, but they still offer plenty of ways to get that sports fix, not to mention new and noteworthy gold-medal attractions that keep visitors coming back for more. While some cities last attempted a bid in the ’50s or ’60s, two of our picks – Istanbul and Madrid – are finalists to host the 2020 Games. Here’s hoping one of these rejects can finally get its chance at Olympic history.
Attempts: 1944, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972
Olympic Connection: You can’t blame Detroit for giving up its quest to host the Games after finishing second in the voting in 1964, 1968, and 1972. Detroit has produced many Olympic champions, including sprinter Eddie Tolan, who in 1932 became the first African American to earn two gold medals.
Get Your Sports Fix: The 2012 London Games mark the first time that baseball is not an official Olympic sport since the 1988 Games in Seoul. However, baseball is the summer game of Detroit, and the Tigers play in Comerica Park, a gorgeous stadium that joined the city’s downtown in 2000. Ford Field hosted the Super Bowl in 2006 and is the home of the Lions. Both stadiums offer guided tours to the public.
Gold Medal Attractions: It’s easy to pick on Detroit and its struggles, but it’s a vibrant city with more green space than you might imagine. Take a bike tour with Wheelhouse Detroit to explore urban gardens that actually supply some of the city’s restaurants with fresh produce.
Attempts: 1916, 1920, 1936, 1944, 1960
Olympic Connection: Thanks in part to the abundant geothermal waters of Hungary’s capital, citizens of Budapest – nicknamed the “City of Baths” – are known for their aquatic athleticism. The men’s Olympic water polo team dominates the competition with nine world titles, and in London the team will shoot for its fourth consecutive gold medal. Budapest-born Tamás Kásás plays on the team’s defense and like his hometown, water is in his DNA. His father, Zoltán, was an Olympic silver medalist on the national team in 1972. This will be Kasás’ fifth time competing in the Olympic Games.
Get Your Sports Fix: The water polo season takes place from May to September. To watch a water polo match while in Budapest check the schedules with the Hungarian Water Polo Association or with the Hungarian Men’s Water Polo Team’s official site.
Gold Medal Attractions: Visitors have been enjoying the thermal baths since Roman times, but Budapest looks to its future with the construction of the $700 million downtown Corvin Promenade, due for completion in December 2013. The development will feature apartments and office buildings, as well as green spaces, restaurants, and shopping centers – some of which are currently open. Coupled with modern architectural design and an upgraded public transport system, the promenade will act as a cultural and commercial hub or, as it’s advertised, Budapest’s new city center.
Attempts: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2020
Olympic Connection: Every July since 1989, Istanbul has hosted the Bosphorus Cross-Continental 4-mile swimming and kayaking races, which is overseen by the International Olympic Committee and the National Olympic Committee of Turkey. An adopted Istanbulite, Ramazan Sahin – who won Turkey’s only gold medal in Beijing, for freestyle wrestling – will return to defend his title in London. With only Madrid and Tokyo as competitors, Istanbul has a strong shot at securing the 2020 Games.
Get Your Sports Fix: Built for the failed 2008 Olympics bid, Ataturk Olympic Stadium – Turkey’s largest sports venue – will undergo an overhaul starting in January 2013 in preparation for the 2020 bid. While it’s closed, you can still catch a soccer game at one of the city’s other main arenas, like the 52,650-seat Turk Telekom Arena, where the Guinness World Records awarded the “loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium” (131.76 decibels!) on March 18, 2011. Istanbul also was named the 2012 European Capital of Sports and will host the WTA Tennis Championships Oct. 23-28.
Gold Medal Attractions: Istanbul is best known for its historic sites and structures, many of which underwent renovations during the city’s 2010 reign as a European Capital of Culture: that year the city completed a 17-year restoration project on the Hagia Sofia and refurbished a section of the Topkapi Palace housing a rare collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelains.
Attempts: 1920, 1948, 1952, 1956, 2016
Olympic Connection: One of five U.S. finalists for the 2016 Games (Chicago won the U.S. bid and the Games ultimately went to Rio de Janeiro), the City of Brotherly Love is the birthplace of NBA star Kobe Bryant, who helped bring home gold in 2008 and will once again play guard for the men’s basketball team in 2012. But that’s not the Philly area’s only Olympic connection: Members of Congress upset over this year’s China-made U.S. Olympic team uniforms may do cartwheels when they see the U.S. gymnastics team’s Swarovski crystal-adorned apparel, which was designed and manufactured right here in the U.S. of A., 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Reading, Penn.
Get Your Sports Fix: Philly’s 19th-century Boathouse Row, a collection of 15 boathouses on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, is a testament to the city’s passion for regattas and boat races (as is Glenn Ochal, the 6-foot-5 token Philadelphian on the 2012 rowing team). View the largest collegiate regatta in the U.S., the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, held every May, from scenic Fairmount Park.
Gold Medal Attractions: The small-but-impressive Rodin Museum reopened in July after a three-year, $9 million renovation restored the structure and its surrounding sculptures and gardens to their 1929 luster.
Attempts: 1972, 2012, 2016, 2020
Olympic Connection: Madrid is a finalist for the 2020 Summer Games and hopes to step out of the shadow of Barcelona’s Olympic rings (the Catalonian city hosted the Summer Games in 1992). The majority of the venues needed for Madrid’s 2020 bid already exist, with plans to hold cycling trials in the city streets, sailing in the Port of Valencia, and tennis in the Caja Mágica.
Get Your Sports Fix: Head to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu to catch a Real Madrid soccer match. It has hosted sporting events since 1947 and can seat more than 85,000 spectators. If basketball is more your speed, make your way to Palacio de Deportes de la Comunidad de Madrid to watch the Real Madrid basketball club that was last season’s runner-up in the Spanish league.
Gold Medal Attractions: After the requisite trip to the Prado, be sure to visit Madrid’s up-and-coming neighborhood, the “Triangle of Ballesta” (aka triBall) where you can shop, see avant-garde theater productions, and enjoy cocktails at Santamaría, la Cockteleria de al Lado, a bar in a former brothel.
6. Buenos Aires
Attempts: 1956, 1968, 2004
Olympic Connection: Buenos Aires may have never hosted the Olympics, but Argentine José Benjamín Zubiaur, an educator and advocate of physical education, was one of the 15 members that made up the first International Olympic Committee in 1894. Buenos Aires is also currently bidding for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games and will hold the selection of the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics on Sept. 7, 2013.
Get Your Sports Fix: With national players like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, two Olympic gold medals, and a couple of FIFA World Cup trophies, it’s hard to imagine soccer in Argentina as anything less than the national religion. Experience the fervor by attending a Boca Juniors game, Buenos Aires’ local team, where rabid fans blow horns, chant songs, and wave flags throughout the 90-minute matches. Tickets can be purchased either through websites like Ticketek, from hotels, or through tour agencies. Most provide English speaking guides and transportation to and from the stadium.
Gold Medal Attractions: Check out the Usina del Arte, or Ideas Power Plant, a former electrical power plant built in 1916 and converted into a cultural center in 2011. With spaces for dance performances, art exhibitions, and philharmonic concerts, the city of Buenos Aires is offering free admission on the weekends with guided tours happening every half-hour.
Attempts: 1916, 1960, 1964
Olympic Connection: Brussels is the home of the Borlée track clan, a professional athletics family and part of Belgium's national squad. They include Belgium's 4x400m relay coach, Jacques; his identical-twin sons Kevin and Jonathan; and daughter Olivia, who won a silver medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in the women’s 4x100m relay. The family will be competing together at the 2012 London Olympics.
Get Your Sports Fix: Rollerblading may not be part of the Olympic Games, but enthusiasts can strap on their skates at Brussels’ Roller Bike Parade. Happening every Friday until September 2012, the procession begins at Brussels’ Place Poelaert, or town square, before rolling through the city center and ending at the start point.
Gold Medal Attractions: As part of Belgium’s Year of Gastronomy, Brussels is playing host to Brusselicious, a year-long culinary fair showcasing the city’s rich cuisine.
Attempts: 1920, 2008, 2012
Olympic Connection: The Caribbean islands have yet to host the Olympics – but they’ve tried. Havana, one of the Caribbean’s largest and most isolated cities, has bid and lost three times. Despite the nation’s vibrant culture, beauty, and climate, Cuba’s financial instability weighs a heavy toll on its ability to fund the Olympic Games. Lázaro Alvarez, 21, is one of eight Cuban Olympic boxers competing at the London Games. He became the youngest boxer to win gold at the 2011 World Championships and is a gold medal contender this year for the bantamweight category.
Get Your Sports Fix: Cuba ranks second only to the United States for total number of Olympic medals in boxing. Havana visitors can watch amateur matches at two area gyms: Sala Polivalente Kid Chocolate, a multi-use indoor sports center named after a 1930s boxing legend, or Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo, an open air training center responsible for Olympic greats like Mario Kindelán.
Gold Medal Attractions: In 2011 President Obama lifted some of the restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba, and more tour agencies are offering “people to people” trips for Americans pining to discover the Caribbean island legally. One of the newest – and most unique – tours will be MotoDiscovery’s motorcycle rides across Cuba, launching this November (dates and itineraries to be announced). Despite the often hefty price tag, Cuba tours of any kind tend to book up fast, so be sure to plan far in advance.
9. Lausanne, Switzerland
Attempts: 1944, 1948, 1960
Olympic Connection: One reason Lausanne has been passed over as a host city is that it has served as the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee since 1915, gaining the title of “Olympic Capital” in 1994. While the Olympic Museum is closed for a major renovation until the end of 2013 (you can still see the Olympic flame), a temporary museum on the boat Helvétie is open from April to October with a special exhibit on the last 20 years of the Games; admission is free.
Get Your Sports Fix: Take your pick from soccer, played in Olympic Stadium (July to May, with a winter break), hockey (September to April), and volleyball (October to April). Lausanne also regularly hosts national and international sporting events; the Athletissima international track and field tournament is scheduled for August 23 at Olympic Stadium, while the Lausanne International Horse Show will take place September 13-16.
Gold Medal Attractions: Situated on the shores of Lake Geneva, the fifth-largest Swiss city offers a mix of countryside recreation and urban pursuits. Be sure to visit the trendy Flon neighborhood in the city center, a former industrial zone that in recent years has become a hub for innovative architectural projects, up-all-night restaurants and bars, and hip boutiques.
Attempts: 1948, 1952, 1956
Olympic Connection: Out of the 11 Minnesotan athletes representing Team USA at the London 2012 Olympics, seven of them call Minneapolis home, most notably Kevin Love, power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team and their leading scorer for the 2011-2012 season, and Seimone Augustus, a member of the U.S. women’s basketball team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Get Your Sports Fix: Voted the “Fittest City in America” by the American Fitness Index, Minneapolis has a wealth of recreational facilities, with 180 parks, 50 miles of jogging and biking paths, and more baseball fields, gyms, and tennis courts than the national average.
Gold-Medal Attractions: Follow the life of Rembrandt van Rijn through his masterpieces in “Rembrandt in America,” on display at the Minneapolis institute of Arts until September 16.