Montreal still paying for the 1976 Summer Games

Updated Mon. Jul. 17 2006 11:25 PM ET News

It was 30 years ago that thousands of Canadians poured into Montreal’s Olympic stadium for the opening ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Games, the first ever held on Canadian soil.

The games ended up being a financial disaster for the city, however. Costs for the construction soared so high that the city is just now making the final payments for the Olympic installation that became known locally as “The Big Owe.”

Flush with the success of Montreal’s Expo '67, Mayor Jean Drapeau pitched his dream for the city to host the summer games and the bid succeeded. But there was a lot of work to do.

The city – and Drapeau – were not prepared for such a huge undertaking.

“They were not doing it systematically,” recalled former cabinet minister Dr. Victor Goldbloom, who was later asked to take on responsibility for the Olympic installations. “They were doing something here and something there.”

One of the big problems, observers recalled, was that Drapeau became the project manager, looking at engineering drawings and giving on-site instructions to the work crews.

“He was concerned that construction wouldn’t meet targets so he personally spent more and more time each day being involved,” Olympic organizing committee planner Paul Howell told CTV Montreal. The mayor was “totally unqualified, really, to do that kind of work,” he said.

“When we took over there were 84 cranes on the job site,” Goldbloom told Derek Conlon of CTV Montreal. “They were getting in each other’s way. The workers were getting in each other’s way.”

Hindered by a lack of proper direction, a strike, the architect living in Paris and the utilization of new construction techniques combined to increase costs, the project fell further and further behind.

In November 1975, with the games just nine months away, Robert Bourassa’s provincial government stepped in to wrest control away from Drapeau and handed it to the newly formed Olympic Installations Board.

Goldbloom, who variously served as Minister of State responsible for the Quality of Environment, Minister of Municipal Affairs, and Minister of Environment in Bourassa’s government, thought he had committed political suicide in agreeing to become responsible for the installations.

Goldbloom estimated his chances of succeeding at just 20 per cent. The outer skeleton of the stadium still had not been completed.

But with new working groups organized and the introduction of daily progress reports, things started to come together.

“It’s a miracle that it has been erected in such a short time,” recalled former Quebec labour minister Jean Cournoyer.

“What the OIB decided to do,” said Goldbloom, “was to take one section, finish it, move on to the next section and go systematically around the oval.”

At one point, as many as 10,000 crew members worked around the clock to speed the project to completion. The OIB decided not to complete the stadium’s tower, since it wasn’t essential to the games, and with that piece of the project eliminated, the project got back on schedule.

The cost to complete the project on time was enormous. Originally estimated to cost $156 million, the installation’s’ price tag ballooned to twice that amount.

“In doubling, we are still realistic and we must be satisfied with this,” Drapeau said at the time.

But the costs didn’t stop there. The bill soon soared past the $1 billion mark and, once interest was added and two roofs were installed, the final cost was tallied at $2 billion.

Montreal will finally see relief from payments on the stadium in a couple of months – more than 30 years after the games began.

Although the debt remains a sore point with Montrealers, the city remains proud of hosting the 1976 games. Although it was the first time in Olympic history that the host country of the Summer Games won no gold medals, Canada did win 11 medals, among them a silver medal for high jumper Greg Joy and three double bronze medal results for swimmers Nancy Garapick, Anne Jardin and Becky Smith.

The City of Montreal’s 30th anniversary celebrations were attended Monday by prominent sport leaders that included International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and Canadian Olympic Committee President Michael Chambers.

“I had the privilege to compete in Montreal,” Rogge said in a news release. “This was my last participation and, as an athlete, I have strong memories of these Games. They were a great success for the City of Montreal and for Canada. It is through the success of these Games that Canada has created a strong Olympic legacy which paved the way for Calgary to host the Olympic Winter Games in 1988 and for Vancouver to host in 2010.”