Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
On its 40th anniversary, the “Big Owe” is slowly turning into a source of pride.
For decades, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium has been the city’s architectural calling card, the postcard image known around the world. But to locals, the swoopy concrete saucer that dominates the city’s east end has also been a bitter reminder of the debt, corruption, and construction delays that almost cost the city its 1976 games.
Final costs for the park were more than triple the $300 million (in Canadian funds) once estimated by the flamboyant mayor Jean Drapeau, who lured the Olympics to town after an ultra-successful World’s Fair in 1967. The leaning tower alongside it was only completed a decade after the games ended. The retractable roof, also finished 10 years late, tore open more often than it successfully peeled back.
But as the city celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Montreal Olympics, there’s an unlikely sense of possibility in the air around the Big O, the most prominent civic keepsake of its ‘76 games. A renovation campaign led by the park’s management agency has injected $7 million into a revamped esplanade outside the stadium, and $5 million into the tower, which now has state-of-the-art outdoor lighting and a spruced-up observatory. Since that work kicked off in 2012, the park has hosted hundreds of events each summer, including one-off baseball and soccer games, outdoor concerts, food truck gatherings, and extreme sports festivals. Officials estimate that about 570,000 people passed through le Stade Olympique in 2015—more than double the visitor count in 2011.
That this relic of a stadium has survived for two decades without any pro franchise as a primary tenant is impressive on its own. That it could now somehow thrive is extraordinary. As a result, Montrealers’ feelings seem to be changing.
“We’re getting proud of it,” Claude Lizotte, a 66-year-old Montreal native, told CityLab Wednesday night. Lizotte and his wife sat perched on folding chairs in a grassy stretch of the esplanade, among the estimated 30,000 people who gathered for a free outdoor concert celebrating the park’s anniversary. “Even though we’re not happy with the cost of it, with time, you kind of forget that,” he said.
It helps that that the stadium’s construction bills were finally paid off in 2006. Lizotte said he might have felt differently before then, when a special stadium-financing tobacco tax was still in place. So did Céline Elie, a 69-year-old Montrealer who has lived here on and off since 1968. Elie was seated with a date near an organic demonstration garden recently planted in a corner of the esplanade. She remembers the controversy surrounding the stadium’s construction in the 1970s, and the outrage over the cost overruns that followed for years.
“I know I paid for it,” she said. “But now it’s there. What can you do? At least they’re using it now.”
The stadium still costs about $1 million a year to maintain. And whether it gets enough use to justify that is debatable: No sports team has called it home since the Expos left in 2004, and it’s otherwise quite vacant for much of the year, mainly due to the ever-problematic roof. The incomplete stadium gaped open during the original games, and the retractable Kevlar cover that was finally installed in 1987 managed to open just 88 times (and failed to work at all in windy conditions). The fixed roof that replaced it now has a reported 6,000 holes and tears, keeping the arena virtually unusable in the winter.
The essential barrenness of the all-cement complex, designed by the French architect Roger Taillibert, remains a hurdle to welcoming visitors, too. Indeed, it’s a minor miracle that the Big O survives at all. Time can be harsh, to say the least, on former Olympic venues, and most of the big, concrete multipurpose complexes built in the 1970s have since been razed.
Yet Montreal has clung to its austere UFO. In 2011, a committee studying the future of the Olympic Park issued a report with a number of recommendations about what to do with the site. Far from promoting demolition, as other studies have, it found that Montrealers wanted to preserve and improve the site. A 2009 survey found that 95 percent of Quebecers opposed a tear-down (perhaps because they are acutely aware of how much they paid for it). And there is now fond nostalgia for the 1976 Olympics, which did bring Montreal international recognition. From an athletic perspective, with the likes of decathalon champion Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner and the perfect-10 Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, those games remain among the most memorable.
With that legacy in mind, the 2011 report suggested that the park’s managers do more to promote youth athletics, and attempt to attract more tourists with restaurants and possibly a hotel. It also proposed reinstalling the retractable roof, at a cost of $200 million. It may sound curious to invest that much in a sports complex that hosts no sports team—but that’s a quarter of the current estimate for demolition. (According to a study, the stadium would have to be deconstructed in pieces, at a staggering cost of $800 million, because imploding it would blanket the city in a cloud of toxic dust.) And in that 2009 survey, 81 percent were in favor of a new roof of some kind.
The Quebec government is listening, to an extent. Last fall, it approved $166 million for further renovations to the stadium—about a quarter of which will go into turning the tower into an office space for the bank Desjardins, the park’s first-ever corporate tenant. (The tower, billed as the world’s tallest inclined structure, currently holds nothing but the observation deck, which will remain open to tourists.) According to Cédric Essiminy, a public relations representative for the Olympic Park, the presence of 1,300 Desjardins employees could attract more investment around the stadium’s struggling neighborhood. That could mean more support for the stadium’s revitalization—which is, in his eyes, a continuation of what’s always been quietly happening here.
“When you go on the internet, you see articles about what happened with some other Olympic installations, how they were abandoned, what they’ve become,” he says. “Here, you have something that never stopped being used. People are still coming here to benefit from it. People tend to not realize that when they compare it to stadiums in Athens, Sochi, Sarajevo.”
As resentments fade, older Montrealers seem to be buying into the possibility of a second (or third, or fourth) act for “the Big Owe.” And for younger natives born after the ‘76 games, emotional associations with the stadium are less fraught. Yes, some see a colossal white elephant, a reminder of government dysfunction. As a tourist destination, “I think Old Montreal is much more enjoyable and worth visiting than coming here and witnessing whatever this is,” said Gabrielle, a 29-year-old Montrealer who declined to give her last name, while munching on a pre-concert sandwich. But many more view it as a piece of cultural patrimony.
“It brings good memories for when people came together, and they’re doing a lot to try to keep that present in the past few years,” said Audrey Lorange, a 26-year-old who lives close to the park. “It’s my sign for home.”
Marie-Laurence Parent, 30, told me the same thing: She grew up near by the stadium and keeps a photo of it on her wall. Her friend, Gary Haran, 37, said he’s spent the better part of his adult life in Montreal since moving from France. Though he sometimes connects the stadium with other frustrations about the city’s management of construction projects, he also takes pride in its architectural uniqueness. As an international icon, it works just fine, he said.
“I like anything that distracts from the fact that we eat poutine.”