Sins of 1976 Olympic Games endure in Montreal
A look back at the price Montreal paid – and continues to pay – for its 1976 financial disaster
The Globe and Mail
[b]- Montrealers tend to think that there’s too little remaining from Expo 67 and far too much left from the 1976 Olympic Games. The city’s recent past might have been very different if the Olympic Stadium had been as easy to clear away as most of Expo’s pavilions.
Acknowledgments of the Games’ 40th anniversary this month have mainly been sombre. The competitions were over in 16 days, but the $1.2-billion Olympic debt weighed on the city and the province for 30 years. The stadium, which alone cost around $1-billion, is still under perpetual repair for its dysfunctional roof, with further costs of $220-million projected by 2025.
What began as an effort “to stage modest Games that would pay for themselves? turned into an uncontrolled building spree in which even the parking garages ended up costing five times the original estimate.
Many factors lay beyond the organizers’ control. The subsoil beneath Olympic Park was less stable than expected, wage and price inflation was rampant, a recession hit in 1974 and a labour conflict stopped all work for 155 days in a six-month period leading up to the Games. Far too much of the Olympic infrastructure was built in a last-minute frenzy of overtime.
In that hubristic spirit, once the 1976 Games came his way, Drapeau selected an architect for Olympic Park with no open competition, nor even a signed contract spelling out the extent and limits of the brief. The mayor didn’t break stride when the federal government formally disowned, in advance, any possible deficit – a move that later provided political capital for René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois.
Disastrously bad management of the building program was laid out in painful detail during a provincial inquiry convened to find out how Drapeau’s “modest Games? had gone so wrong.
The inquiry’s final report found his leadership of the event incompetent and irresponsible.
Corruption charges were brought successfully against senior officials. The Montreal Olympics became an international symbol of how the Games can become a Trojan horse that destroys those who drag it inside their city gates.
More important for Montreal, the Olympics had a profound effect on the means and ambitions available for public building projects. The stadium more or less killed interest in landmark architectural projects, in Montreal and Quebec generally. The “starchitect? who arrives with expensive unworkable plans is a figure of collective nightmare. Whenever a new public building goes up, the watchwords are functionality and cost control.
Keen interest in cost engineering, to use the architects’ phrase, became necessary in Montreal while trying to build out from under the Olympic debt. Even so, the construction and maintenance of public works suffered. When Toronto was enjoying a building boom of cultural facilities a decade ago, Montreal was sinking its share of federal infrastructure money into long-delayed upgrades of sewers and pipes.
His stadium today has no anchor tenants. A recently announced plan to install office workers in the spatulate leaning tower, which has stood empty since it was added in 1986, will cost $60-million for renovations.[/b]