Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times.
The 1976 games were largely considered a financial disaster. Can their legacy finally right itself?
For sports fans, the 1976 Montreal Olympics might be best remembered for Nadia Comaneci’s perfect tens in gymnastics, or Bruce Jenner’s gold medal in the decathlon. Others might recall that Princess Anne, a member of the British equestrian team, was the only Olympic athlete who did not have to take a sex test.
For Montreal itself, the legacy of the 1976 games is far more mixed. Coupled with Expo '67, the phenomenally successful world's fair held to mark Canada's 100th birthday, the games lifted Montreal from a French-Canadian city into the ranks of the world’s best known.
While Expo's pavilions were in one spot, the games spread across the city and the region, taking place not just at the Olympic Park, but in storied venues like the Forum and on plush fields in Bromont, Quebec, where Queen Elizabeth II watched her daughter compete.
Tickets were plentiful and inexpensive, by modern athletic standards, and visitors from all over North America (including my family) flocked to Montreal.
But the Montreal games also had to contend with financial disaster. Their price tag swelled from an original estimate of about $360 million to $1.6 billion, when the final bill for construction came in. Bonds to finance the overage were only paid off in 2006, three decades after the Olympic torch was extinguished.
No one knew what was to come in 1970, when Montreal beat out Los Angeles and Moscow to land the games. The city used the popularity of Expo, whose 50 million attendees included Monaco’s Princess Grace, to convince the International Olympic Committee that it was well equipped to host a second major international event.
Securing Canada's first ever Olympics was a triumph for the city’s flamboyant mayor, Jean Drapeau, who ran Montreal for a total of 30 years from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Fond of mixing with city residents on a daily basis, Drapeau was a French-Canadian version of Boston’s legendary mayor, James Michael Curley, says Paul Howell, an author and planning consultant who served on the 1976 games’ organizing committee.
But "Drapeau had a somewhat exaggerated view of his own managerial capability. He finished Expo on a real high, and people loved the city," continuing to visit the world fair site long after it was finished, Howell says. “Whether you can develop a city based on a series of big events is a good question."
Drapeau was so confident he would be just as successful with the Olympics as he was with Expo that he famously declared, "The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby." He was spectacularly wrong, and his miscalculation became the 1976 games' uncomfortable legacy.
The mayor initially thought the Olympics could be partially financed by the sale of commemorative coins, an idea greeted with skepticism by the Canadian government. Labor conflicts caused delays, political wrangling flared and things went so badly in the run up to the games that the Quebec government stepped in to oversee construction.
By the mid-1980s, the games were largely considered to have been a failure, says Bruce Kidd, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto and a former Olympian himself, who covered the 1976 games for Canadian television. Back then, he says, "The critics were right. The costs and the risks in extravagant architecture and corruption far outweighed the benefits."
But recently, Kidd says he's been reassessing the games, given how Montreal’s image was burnished as a result. "The assessment of legacies is an ongoing process. To conclude when a community is exhausted after a games that there will not be a great legacy is to conclude prematurely," he says.
Indeed, the ’76 games are part of the city’s landscape. Visitors can still see the stadium, in which the Montreal Expos once played (they departed in 2005). Originally nicknamed "The Big O" for its shape, the financing boondoggle earned it the tag, "The Big Owe."
Another leftover structure is The Biodome, originally the Olympic velodrome. After the games, it was declared unusable for cycling, and by 1992 had been converted into an indoor nature exhibit. The twin towers of the Olympic Village, which housed the athletes, were turned into apartments and offices after the games.
But Montreal’s Olympic structures are overshadowed, both physically and psychically, by what’s left of Expo. The transparent dome that Buckminster Fuller designed for use as the American Pavilion still sits on the Ile Sainte-Helene, while Habitat, the apartments designed by Moshe Safdie, are considered one of the most architecturally important sites in Canada.
Rather than compare the two, Kidd says that Expo and the Olympics should be viewed as the book ends of Drapeau’s efforts to raise Montreal’s profile in the world. "The Olympics continued the spectacle of a city as a cultural celebration and exploration," says Kidd. "Would it have happened without Expo? I’m not sure."
And without the 1976 games, Canada might not have been a contender for the subsequent events that it attracted: the Calgary games in 1988 and the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
It isn’t likely that Canada will make another successful Olympic bid, which makes the Montreal games even more special, says Kidd. "My Olympic friends say, 'you’re a country of 33 million. You’ve had them three times in your lifetime. That’s way more than anyone else.'"
Top image: Panoramic view of Montreal's Olympic Park by Paolo Costa Baldi. License CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons