||July 17, 1976
|Regie des Installations Olympiques
(Government of Quebec)
|Cost of Construction
C$1.47 Billion (2006)
||Quebec government tobacco tax.
||1976 Summer Olympics
Grey Cup (CFL)
Piscines du Parc Olympique Swim Club
2009 Trophee des Champions
|On Site Parking
||Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport (YUL)
In 1970, when Montreal was named to host the Summer Olympics '76, organizers estimated it would cost $310 million to stage the Games. However, due to political corruption, mismanagement, labor disputes, inflation and a $100 million outlay for security to prevent another Munich, the final bill came to more than $1.5 Billion.
Then, right before the Games were scheduled to open in July, 32 nations, most of them from black Africa, walked out when the IOC refused to ban New Zealand because its national rugby team was touring racially-segregated South Africa. Taiwan also withdrew when Communist China pressured trading partner Canada to deny the Taiwanese the right to compete as the Republic of China.
When the Games finally got started they were quickly stolen by 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who scored seven perfect 10s on her way to three gold medals.
East Germany's Kornelia Ender did Comaneci one better, winning four times as the GDR captured 11 of 13 events in women's swimming. John Naber (4 gold) and the U.S. men did the East German women one better when they won 12 of 13 in swimming.
In track and field, Cuba's Alberto Juantorena won the 400 and 800-meter runs, and Finland's Lasse Viren took the 5,000 and 10,000. Viren missed a third gold when he placed fifth in the marathon.
Four Americans who became household names during the Games were decathlon winner Bruce Jenner and three future world boxing champions - Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon.
Source: 1996 Information Please Sports Almanac
When the Torch Goes Out
An Olympic city faces an Olympic-sized problem
Story by Benjamin Pomerance
The largest white elephant in Canada stands on a hillside across from Montreal's Botanical Gardens, squarely straddling a grassy knoll on the block between Sherbrooke and Pierre de Coubertin avenues. Its neck would look fine on the body of a dinosaur; its body belongs in the sky in some sort of Steven Spielberg classic, filled to capacity with extra-terrestrial life. Yet this hollow ellipse is not filled with any sort of being, alien or otherwise, not anymore. Its innards have been a ghost town much of the time for many years, and no signs suggest this will change anytime soon.
This wasn't always so. Once upon a time, this place was teeming with life, vibrant with color, alive with newly minted memories. Once upon a time, this empty structure was the hot topic in town, the city's simultaneous center of controversy and celebration. Once upon a time, this was Olympic Stadium.
"Everywhere you walked, you heard people talking about the Games, how exciting it would be for the city. We've never had anything like it in Montreal since then. "
Sylvie Bastien remembers these glory days. She was a student at University of Montreal at the time, hired by the city to work at one of Montreal's housing complexes for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. "It was fantastic," she says of the year the Games came to Montreal. "I could feel the electricity in the air in Montreal. Everywhere you walked, you heard people talking about the Games, how exciting it would be for the city. We've never had anything like it in Montreal since then."
Today, Bastien still works at Montreal's Olympic complex, serving as Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Parc olympique, the Quebec government-sponsored organization which owns Olympic Stadium today. Yet while the physical structure remains, the vibe of the '70s has gone, something Bastien openly acknowledges. "When the Olympics are over, it's no longer an Olympic stadium" she explains. "It's just a stadium. Our challenge is to find ways to use it today."
A challenge, to be sure. In modern times, Bastien says, the Stade olympique is used mostly for trade shows and exhibitions, with the occasional sporting event (like the Grey Cup, the Super Bowl of the Canadian Football League, which will be held there in November) gracing its field. Not that these events go on without success. Last year alone, Bastien says, the Quebec government earned about $20 million in revenues from operating Olympic Stadium. Yet the complex still sits empty much of the year, quiet and still, a concrete reminder of a story that still embitters some Montrealers. It's a tale of Olympic proportions, an account of scandals and finger-pointing and deceit, a saga which still continues today. It's the story of a city that jumped at the chance to host the Olympic Games, and then was left holding the bag when the Games were over. It's a story of what happens when the torch goes out.
The story began on paper. The draftboards of architect Roger Taillibert bore an incredible sketch, a design unlike any ever seen. A huge bowl of a stadium boasting a retractable roof and attached to a monstrous inclined tower - the majestic edifice was better than anything the City of Montreal had ever imagined for their Games. For the city officials examining the plans for the first time, Taillibert's Stade Olympique seemed too magnificent to be true. Before long, they would learn just how right they were.
Yet Olympic Stadium was not Taillibert's baby. The father of Stade Olympique was unquestionably Jean Drapeau, the highly respected mayor of Montreal. No man was more revered in early-'70s Montreal than Drapeau and Drapeau revered no architect more than Roger Taillibert. Drapeau believed Taillibert was a great artist needing a sponsor to catapult him to international fame. Designing Montreal's Olympic showpiece, Drapeau believed, was the boost Taillibert needed.
Drapeau loved something else about Taillibert's plans: the price. The estimate for constructing Olympic Stadium was impressively low, a key point for the mayor who vowed his city would suffer no deficits from the Games. "The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby," he bragged to reporters. Desperate to fulfill that promise, Drapeau was pleased to see Taillibert's plans came with a price tag of only $134 million. Yet Drapeau did a strange thing. In a gesture to prove his complete trust in his architect of choice, Drapeau removed all monetary parameters from the terms of Taillibert's contract. Later, Drapeau would call this decision "the worst (I) ever made."
At the time, though, no decision was more celebrated. When ground was broken on the site of the new stadium on April 28, 1973, the event was greeted with tremendous fanfare. The papers played it up big - the vast dimensions of the Olympic park; the seating capacity of 58,500; the 583-foot tower which would stand as the tallest inclined structure in the world. At the center of it all stood Drapeau, beaming like a proud papa. "These Olympic Games are sure to show the world," he announced, "that Montreal is a city of culture, honor and prestige."
Then the problems began, descending on the city like the seven plagues. First came scandal when news broke that Drapeau never allowed a competitive bidding process for the contact to design the stadium. Then came stoppage when the bulk of the workforce walked off the site, striking against wages they deemed unfair and causing a costly delay in building the tower. Next came protest and dissent, led by Montreal City Councilor Nick Auf der Maur, a vigorous opponent of the city hosting the Games, and joined by many irate voices in the Montreal public.
"We believe our spirit and resolve will make these Games - our Games - a success."ΚΚΚ
Fifth came disillusionment when it became evident that the retractable roof could never be ready in time for the opening ceremonies. Panic struck sixth, a fear that Olympic Stadium simply wouldn't be ready to host the world in 1976 - worries legitimate enough that International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin began investigating the possibility of moving the Games to Germany. Last was extravagance, dropping like a $100 million bombshell when news broke that Taillibert's incredibly low estimate was nothing more than a pipe dream. Humiliated, Drapeau was forced to admit his errors. "This is agonizing for us," he admitted in an early 1976 press conference, "but we believe our spirit and resolve will make these Games - our Games - a success."
Somehow, Drapeau was correct. The stadium was not finished when the athletes arrived in 1976. There was no retractable roof, and the giant tower was still ringed with scaffolding. Yet when the world turned its attention to the first Olympics held on Canadian soil, nobody cared. Instead, they cared about the opening ceremonies, highlighted by the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. They cared about 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored seven perfect 10's and captured three gold medals. They cared about the East German women's swim team, which earned gold in all but two events, and the American boxing squad, which won five golds and featured four future world champions, and the entire Taiwanese delegation, which boycotted the Games after learning the IOC would not recognize them as the "Republic of China". Broken promises and broken dreams couldn't have been further from the public mindset. By the time the Olympic torch had been snuffed out in the closing ceremony, the 1976 Summer Games had been hailed as a resounding success.
"For that time, we were the center of the world. Everybody was watching Montreal."
"I think it was the greatest thing in our city's history," Bastien says. "For that time, we were the center of the world. Everybody was watching Montreal."
Then the Games left, and the Cinderella story turned back into a pumpkin - a spaceship-shaped concrete pumpkin. When the totals were tallied, the Olympics had cost Montreal over $1.5 billion, far beyond Drapeau's original promise of $310 million. At the center of it all sat Olympic Stadium, the unfinished centerpiece that had cost $264 million and still lacked both roof and completed tower, a bad reminder of the bitter taste Montrealers now had in their mouths. Originally nicknamed "The Big 'O'", Olympic Stadium was now ridiculed by Montreal residents as "The Big Owe," "The Big Uh-O", or, most bluntly of all, "The Big Mistake."
So the city decided to correct their "Big Mistake". In 1977, Montreal's new Major League Baseball franchise, the Expos, moved into the cavernous Stade Olympique as a "permanent tenant". To attract more fans, the retractable roof was completed, as was the leaning tower, providing the park with its most recognizable feature. With the city plunged into post-Olympic debt, Montreal leaders hoped Olympic Stadium might become a profitable venture, a baseball stadium attracting fans across Canada. The Expos couldn't absolve all the city's problems, but they could, many hoped, help ease the pain.
For a while, the scheme worked. Fans flocked to "The Big O" to cheer for talented Montreal players like Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines. In 1982, Olympic Stadium even played host to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. Yet it eventually became evident that the Expos experiment was destined to fail. Never meant to be a baseball stadium, many fans ridiculed Stade Olympique as the worst park in the majors, saying it was too vast for fans to enjoy the game. Frequent accidents didn't help matters, highlighted by the collapse of a portion of the roof during the 1999 Montreal Auto Show. Eventually, the roof's retraction system also broke, making Olympic Stadium a permanently indoor ballpark and inviting more venom from detractors.
Bastien disagrees with such criticism. "The fans came before," she says. "The stadium was full. If they didn't like the stadium, they wouldn't have come at all. What they didn't like was when the Expos stopped winning. The fact that fans stopped coming was due to the team, not to their stadium."
In the end, the fans disappeared entirely. The Expos routinely drew fewer than 3,000 spectators in 2004, the team's final year in Montreal. Major League Baseball moved the team to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season, leaving "The Big 'O'" without a tenant once again.
"The entire last season of the Expos made less money than two trade shows. We never depended on them."
Some people believe the move was addition by subtraction. "The Expos were never our main source of revenue," Bastien says. "The entire last season of the Expos made less money than two trade shows. We never depended on them."
Two years after the team's departure, the city of Montreal finally closed the books on payments for Olympic Stadium. Total costs, including construction, repairs and renovations, amounted to over $1.61 billion of the city's money. And the results, many residents still lament, were anything but worthy of a gold medal.
Yet Montreal's white elephant does not stand alone. Subsequent Summer Games had their own problems, cities struggling to fill their huge Olympic complexes after the Games left town. "It's not a problem unique to Montreal," Bastien says. "When the Games are over, it's a real letdown. But you can't just abandon what you built. You do the best you can to use it as effectively as possible. That's what we're doing now."
On August 8, the world watched as the Summer Games began in Beijing, just as they watched when Olympic Stadium hosted the opening ceremonies in 1976. And now, just as then, one can only wonder what will happen to this city now that the Olympics are gone, the world has turned away and the torch has gone out.
The Second Departure:
One year after the Olympics left town, a new tenant moved into the vacant lot known as Le Stade Olympique. The Montreal Expos were not a new game in town, having played at cozy Jerry Park since 1969. Thousands of fans had turned out game after game to cheer on the team nicknamed in honor of Expo '67, the World's Fair held in Montreal in that year.
Yet the team was new to the cavernous confines of Olympic Stadium. Fans didn't know it then, but the team's seemingly sensible move across town was the first step in a 26-year death march ending in disaster.
Like the Olympics, the Expos were covered with the handprints of Mayor Jean Drapeau. It was Drapeau who first championed the idea of bringing a major league team to Montreal, a concept brought to reality by city councilor Gerry Snyder. Under Drapeau's blessing, Snyder convinced brewery magnate Charles Bronfman to become the new team's owner, bringing "America's Pastime" to Canada for the first tine.
The city council moved the Expos to Olympic Stadium in 1977, hoping to offset hidden debts from hosting the Olympics. In the beginning, everything seemed fine, with Expos fans, weaned on colorful stars like Mack Jones and Rusty "Le Grand Orange" Staub, packing the ballpark night after night.
In 1981, the Expos reached the high water mark of their history: their lone postseason appearance in Montreal. After a thrilling postseason, the team lost 3-2 in the National League Championship Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, courtesy of a Game 6, ninth-inning home run by Rick Monday. Montrealers have referred to the game as "Blue Monday" ever since.
Throughout the '80s, the Expos featured a talented lineup with Hall-of-Fame catcher Gary Carter, outfielders Tim Raines and Andre Dawson, third baseman Tim Wallach and pitcher Steve Rogers. Most importantly for the city, business was booming, with Olympic Stadium attendance increasing each year from 1979 to 1983.
Then the problems began, starting when Bronfman sold the team to Claude Brochu in 1991. In his final news conference, Bronfman deemed the "Big 'O'" an "unsuitable" stadium, a refrain Expos fans would echo throughout the next decade. Three years later, Felipe Alou's Expos squad stood alone in first place on August 12, 1994 only to see their chances at winning a World Series dashed when a player's strike canceled the rest of the season. Angry over losing money in the strike, Brochu traded away the team's high-contract stars in 1995, thus starting a nine-year exodus of disillusioned fans away from Olympic Stadium.
Rays of hope came when Jeffrey Loria purchased the Expos in 1999, but when the city refused to ask for public funding to build a new ballpark, Loria began looking to move the Expos to another city. When this failed, Loria abandoned the team entirely, jumping to the Florida Marlins in 2001 and leaving the Expos as wards of Major League Baseball. With no TV coverage, attendance below 10,000 per game, and city-wide dissatisfaction over the team, the end was apparent, despite the field presence of perennial All-Stars like Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro.
Death came quietly for a team on life support in 2004 when Major League Baseball announced the Expos were moving to Washington, D.C. where they play today as the Nationals.
On September 29, 2004, the Expos played their final game at Olympic Stadium, a 9-1 loss before a crowd of 31,395, pallbearers of a departed franchise. Then the dugouts were cleared, the basepaths removed, the lights turned off and the "Big 'O'" was left empty once more.
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