The Montreal Olympics left the city with a C $1.6 bn debt, a string of corruption scandals, and a sneaking sense of economic and social decline. Forty years on, how did the city survive?

There is a moment before all our global sporting extravaganzas when it all seems poised on a knife edge. Helicopters hover above the stadium, keyed-up athletes shuffle and bounce with excess energy, and organisers bite their nails as they try to hold down nervous bellies, worried that despite years of planning and the expenditure of billions, it will all run urgently wrong.

Then the cornets sound, thousands of young person had participated in colorful charades, pop superstars opposed a losing battle with hopeless stadium acoustics and the Games begin.

The formula is pretty much set in stone, but in 1976 Montreal added a wrinkle. On 17 July, with Queen Elizabeth, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and 73,000 people seeming on, the Greek athletes who traditionally resulted the Parade of Nations came up the ramp towards the Olympic stadium to find their way nearly blocked by construction workers.

Out of sight of the cameras and the throng inside the stadium, the staff were madly wielding shovels and brooms to clear away the building debris left from the manic push to complete the facility on time. In the final scrambling months before the Games, 3,000 labourers had worked in squads 24 hours a day to make it possible for the Olympics to begin at all. They barely succeeded.

Two weeks later, when the last athlete had gone home, Montreal woke up to what remains the worst hangover in Olympic history: not only a bill that came in at 13 days the original estimation, a string of officers convicted of breach of trust and the greatest white elephant of a stadium ever built, but a creeping sense of economic and social decline. Forty years on , no other Olympics has so thoroughly broken a city.

The welcoming ceremony of the 1976 Montreal Game. Photo: Tony Duffy/ Getty Images


When I arrived in Montreal five years earlier, a war resister from Nebraska with little French and less money, the city was enduring its harshest wintertime on record. Montreal would be given more than 152 inches of snow in 1970 -7 1, including a March blizzard that killed 17 people.

The endless snowfall, in a sense, was a compassion. It turned down the heat on the citys simmering political crisis, which had boiled over the previous October when the terrorist Front du Libration du Quebec( FLQ) kidnapped the British consul, James Cross, and the provinces minister of justice, Pierre Laporte. Prime minister Trudeau responded by imposing martial law. Armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets and troops detained hundreds of people without charges.

The FLQ would murder Laporte on 17 October. They released Cross on 3 December, effectively aiming the crisis but leaving the city battered, bruised and tense. Even before the kidnappings, Montreal was jittery from a series of FLQ bombs: 95 in total, the largest of which blew out the northeast wall of the Montreal Stock Exchange.

And yet, in those years, the best place to get a sense of what Montreal was and might have been was Le Bistro. It was actually Chez Lou Lou, although no one called it that, and it featured more or less authentic Parisian ambience, right down to the surly French waiters.

When I could afford it, Le Bistro was my favourite destination on a weekend morning. One especially frigid Saturday, Leonard Cohen sat at the next table with a blonde companion, both of them sporting deepwater tans from the Greek islands, looking blas about it all.

Leonard Cohen was bear in Westmount, Montreal. Photograph: Roz Kelly/ Getty Images

Montrealers could afford to be blas. The city was everything that Toronto, its rival, 300 miles to the south-west, was not: urbane, sophisticated, hip, a place where you could dine well and party until the bars closed at 3am. In Toronto, they rolled up the street at 11 pm and toasted the Queen at public functions.

Montreal was not just the financial capital of Canada, it was also the most European of North American cities, half English-speaking but overwhelmingly French, profoundly cultured and unfailingly elegant, where the old stone of the cathedrals met the Bauhaus steel-and-glass towers of Mies van der Rohes Westmount Square.

The crowd at Le Bistro was a cross-section of culture and political life in a city full of tensions, between separatism and federalism, English, French and Jewish, old money and new. There were political tensions that seemed to feed a creative fermentation home that produced Cohen, the bombastic poet Irving Layton, the acerbic novelist Mordecai Richler, the legislators Pierre Trudeau and Ren Lvesque, the actor Genevive Bujold and the film-maker Denys Arcand.

When, on 12 May 1970, during the 69 th conference of the International Olympic Committee held in Amsterdam, Montreal won out over vying bids from Moscow and Los Angeles to be awarded the Game of the XXI Olympiad, it seemed to signal another triumph. The city had hosted one of the most successful Worlds Fairs ever in 1967, and a new baseball team, the Expos, began play in 1969, defeating the St Louis Cardinals 8-7 on 14 April at Jarry Park in the first regular season Major League game in Canada.

Following those triumphs, the Olympics were sold to the Montreal public as being modest in design and, above all, inexpensive to stage. The mayor, Jean Drapeau diminutive, autocratic, mustachioed proclaimed: The Olympics can no more running a deficit than a human can have a baby.


Leger( left) and Drapeau( right ), listen as Taillibert describes the layout of Parc Olympique. Photo: Bettmann/ Bettmann Archive

The 1970 estimate was that the Games would cost C $120 m( 65 m) in total, with $71 m budgeted for the Olympic Stadium itself. Drapeau took a personal hand in the stadiums design. He and his chief technologist, Claude Phaneuf, selected the French architect Roger Taillibert, who had constructed the Parc des Princes in Paris and would also design the Olympic Village.

Taillibert hired his own team of architects and engineers, and was respected for bringing in projects at, or at the least near, budget.( The Parc des Princes, originally budgeted at $12 m, cost $18 m .) His notion for the Big O stadium was grandiose, in a style that might be called space-age fascist: it featured an enormous, inclined tower, the tallest such structure in the world, holding a retractable roof suspended from thick cables and looming over the stadium like a praying mantis over a turtle.

There is no evidence, however, that either Taillibert or Drapeau ever had a handle on the management of the various construction sites. There were lags from the very beginning, and building on the Olympic Park complex( including the Velodrome and Big O) began 18 months late, on 28 April 1973. This set Drapeau right where the powerful and militant Quebec labour unions( the Quebec Federation of Labour and the Confederation of National Trade Unions) wanted him: paying extravagant overtime bills.

Out of a total of 530 potential working day between December 1974 and April 1976, construction workers would be on strike for 155 days 30% of the work period available. In one particularly crucial period of building, from May until the end of October 1975, less than a year before the opening ceremonies were to commence, the unions walked off the job and no work was done at all.

Oversight was utterly inadequate over all aspects of the project. During the inflationary 1970 s, the price of structural steel alone tripled. In 1973, contractor Regis Trudeau, who had been awarded $6.9 m in Olympic construction contracts, built a luxurious chalet expensing $163,000 for Gerard Niding, who was Drapeaus right-hand man and head of Montreal city councils powerful executive committee. Merely when a corruption committee forced his hand, five years later, did Trudeau ultimately make a bill charging Niding for the house.

By 1975, the provincial government had watched enough: they removed Taillibert and formed the Olympic Installations Board ( pdf )~ ATAGEND( OIB) in an attempt to get a handle on the construction. Ironically , no one has since delivered a pithier assessment of the corruption than Taillibert himself. In 2011, he told le Devoir: The construction of the Olympic Park and stadium showed me a level of organised corruption, stealing, mediocrity, sabotage and apathy that I had never witnessed before and have never witnessed since. The system failed completely and every civil engineering firm involved knew they could just open this veritable cash register and serve themselves.

Drapeau himself was never charged or even suspected of personal corruption, but his remark about humen having newborns came back to haunt him. At the time, family physicians Henry Morgentaler was much in the news for openly performing abortions. As the Olympic bill nearly tripled, to $310 m, Montreal Gazette cartoonist Aislin drew one of the most famous cartoons of a brilliant career: it depicted a visibly pregnant Drapeau on the phone, saying: Ello? Morgentaler?


When the Games eventually opened, problems beset the event itself, too. As it would do with debt, corruption and building chaos, the Montreal Olympics inspired a trend in boycotts, when 22 African nations refused to participate because the IOC would not ban New Zealand for sending the All Blacks rugby team to tour apartheid South Africa. It caught on: western nations boycotted Moscow in 1980 over the Soviet intrusion of Afghanistan, and communist nations retaliated in Los Angeles in 1984.

Montreals Olympic Stadium. Photo: Design Pics Inc/ Alamy Stock Photo

Montreal also broke the mould in security. Following the terrorist tragedy at Munich four years earlier, the security bill objective up running to another $100 m( more than 80% of what the entire event was initially supposed to cost ), not including the cost of the Canadian forces-out enlisted to help keep order.

Meanwhile, some of the athletes were tainted by accusations of doping, including legendary Finnish postman and distance runner Lasse Virn, who was suspected of transfusing his own blood business practices that was legal at the time, though Viren has always denied it. Far more serious was the treatment of East German athletes, who predominated their events in part because, the world afterwards learned, theyd been fed performance-enhancing medications for decades, sometimes without their knowledge, under a programme known as State Plan 14.25. Many afterwards suffered psychological both problems and had children with birth defects.

In the end, the athletes themselves redeemed at least some section of the Olympic expense: the Games themselves went off relatively well. If the relentlessly self-promoting American decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner caused a few eyeballs to roll, he was overshadowed by the refrigerator-built Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev, who recurred his heavyweight gold from Munich and defined an Olympic record in the snatch while lifting 440 kg. And in the first full day of competition, the 14 -year-old diminutive Romanian gymnast Nadia Comneci earned a perfect 10 on the uneven bars she went on to become the 1976 Olympics unquestioned individual star.

Canada, meanwhile, became the first host nation to fail to win a gold medal on home clay, a accomplishment constructed no less exceptional for being repeated at the Calgary Winter Olympics 12 years later.

The glow began to fade-out with the closing ceremonies on 1 August. The final tally of the cost for the Olympics was $1.6 bn, a more than 13 -fold increase, including at least $1.1 bn for the stadium alone. In popular lore, the Big O had officially became the Big Owe. When all was said and done, the city was left with indebtednes that took 30 years to pay off.

Nadia Comneci, of Romania, dismounts during a perfect 10 performance. Photo: Paul Vathis/ AP


On 15 November 1976, operating on a platform of good government in the wake of the scandals and cost overruns, Ren Lvesques separatist Parti Qubecois( PQ) won its first provincial election. The PQs promise to hold a referendum on leaving Canada touched off a full-scale anglophone anxiety in bilingual Montreal, especially within the business community. Sun Life, the enormous insurance company, was the first of a river of Montreal-based corporations to move down Highway 401 to Toronto.

When the referendum was eventually held in 1980, Lvesque and the yes side lost decisively, but by the end of the 1980 s Canadas financial capital had changed firmly from St Jacques Street to Bay Street, Toronto. Between 1971 and 1981, the English-speaking population of Montreal declined by virtually 100,000; over the next 20 years which included another referendum in 1995, that merely kept Quebec in Canada by a narrow margin of 50. 6% to 49.4% it would shrink by another 100,000.

Like some medieval palace under a warlocks curse, the Olympic stadium visible from dozens of various types of vantage points in the city, an inescapable reminder of what went wrong continued to be beset with problems. In the 1980 s, the tower caught fire. In August of 1986, a chunk of it fell on to the baseball field, forcing the Expos to postpone a game. In September of 1991, a bigger 55 -tonne concrete slab fell on to an empty walkway. The OIB reassured the public no one was underneath it, inspiring one columnist to ask: How do they know?

The retractable roof never happened; instead, an orange Kevlar roof was ultimately installed in April of 1987. It tore repeatedly, until it was replaced in 1998 by a fixed roof, which cost another $37 m. In the winter of the next year, that roof tore under a heavy snow loading, sending a small avalanche of ice cascading on to workers preparing for a motor present.

To this day, in a northern Canadian city that averages roughly 50 cm of snow a month in winter, the Olympic Stadium cannot be used if the snow loading outstrips 3cm. The OIB claims the only thing more expensive than a permanent steel roof( estimated cost: $200 m- $300 m) would be to tear the whole thing down( estimated costs:$ 1bn ). Their figure has been widely debunked. The roof remains in place, and the Big O now lacks a full-time tenant: the Expos played their last game in 2004 and the franchise moved to Washington DC.

The 200,000 sq ft, 65 -tonne Kevlar roof at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal was expected to last 25 years. Photograph: Shaun Best/ Reuters

The stadium aside, Montreal did get some bang for its Olympic buck. The excellent Claude Robillard Sports Centre in the citys north objective is still used by thousands of athletes, and the one-time Velodrome has been converted to the Biodome, an enormously popular indoor nature museum. The assert has furthermore been built that the Montreal Olympics proper turned a profit, which is true only if you chalk up the various purpose-built venues, the stadium in particular, to infrastructure. In any case, it would take 30 years for the city of Montreal to retire the Olympic debt.

A commission headed by superior court judge Albert Malouf to probe Olympic corruption spent three years, and the other$ 3m, before releasing a 908 -page report in 1980 that lay blamed squarely at the feet of the mayor. Taillibert, Phaneuf and others shared some of the responsibility, in Maloufs view, but Drapeau was the principal culprit, with his hands-on style and his habit of turning a blind eye to the shenanigans around him. Top officials and contractors were convicted of fraud and corruption. They included Niding, Drapeaus right-hand man, who was convicted of breach of trust and sentenced to the working day in jail and a $75,000 fine, and contractor Regis Trudeau, who also received a one-day jail sentence and a $100,000 penalty. Even Claude Rouleau, head of the OIB installed to stop the bleeding, was found guilty of breach of trust for accepting gifts in connection with the Olympic construction and was ordered to pay $31,000.

Fining the miscreants, regrettably, didnt help pay off much of the debt. In order to rid itself of the Olympic burden city hall had to skimp on urban essentials for years. Even now, with a belated rushed to repair its crumbling infrastructure, Montreal is still paying the cost for decades of neglect.


Forty years on, however, Montreal has endured. The sour gags about the stadium, the corruption and the Olympic debt are now part of the culture. The separatist movement that convulsed the city in the immediate aftermath of the debacle also brought some much-needed social change.

Montreal survived by reinventing itself on a smaller, more viable scale. If Toronto seized the mantle of Canadas financial capital, Montreal is the unquestioned capital of culture, a vibrant city of street art, sculpture and world-class jazz, fireworks, comedy and fringe festivals, the city no longer only of Leonard Cohen but of Arcade Fire and Cirque du Soleil.

Le Bistro is long gone, but Montreal is still hip, the bars and restaurants and clubs the liveliest in the country, a walk-to city where the coffeehouse are full the working day long and joie de vivre trumps quotidian worries over such inconvenient details as bounced rent cheques and unpaid parking tickets. Montreal remains the polar opposite of fund and real-estate preoccupied Toronto though where it was once a smaller, colder Paris, Montreal is now more North American, less European, less blithely certain of its position in the universe.

Nevertheless, the Olympic debt is paid, separatism is a diminished force-out and there is even a tentative scheme afoot to bring back the Expos. When springtime finally comes after the long winters, there is a buoyant sense of rebirth and confidence in the future. If you can ignore the potholes and the still-simmering disputes over municipal corruption, Montreal is once again a great place to live. But you cant escape the sense that the city might have had it all. In truth, before the Olympics, it did.

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