When the Olympic Games ended in Rio last month, I reflected on this being the 40th anniversary year of the Summer Olympics in Montreal. What first came to mind was how those Olympics were not supposed to have had a deficit. Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau said a man was more likely to have a baby. I think he was almost as crazy and as delusional as Donald Trump.
1976 was a reckoning period in Quebec. Social unrest ruled in the ‘70s as even policemen and firemen (there were no women on either force then) went on strike. The police and firemen won and, today, governments struggle to pay the cost-of-living adjusted guaranteed pensions the strikers fought for.
Separatist fever was also running high. Discontent over immigrants going to English instead of French schools was fuelling violent demonstrations in Montreal and suburbs. It was during those tumultuous years when everybody sensed chaos and instability closing in that the mayor of Montreal was having his Olympic facilities built.
While hell was burning, Drapeau dreamed of beautiful grandiose things. To him, no expense needed to be spared for works of art, and his Olympic Stadium was going to be like no other in the world. The final cost bloated to more than a billion dollars. It cost more than any other stadium in the world before and since.
So many years, and so many additional hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance costs later, the stadium sits virtually empty. It’s leaning tower looms over the east end of Montreal as if to remind everyone of Montreal’s ill-fated attempt to build its own Eiffel Tower.
Then, and now, it is hard to conceive of spending so much on a two-week sporting event. How misguided and irresponsible could politicians have been?
Forty years later, people are raising many of the same questions after last month’s games in Rio. The athleticism was first class, no question about that, but the spending, the infrastructure necessary, is beyond comprehension.
Brazil and its people have so many more important basic needs, which lost out to the lustre of hosting a beautifully appointed, if imperfect, Olympiad. The International Olympic Committee, comprising aristocratic snobs, sets the specifications and the hosting countries have to comply. The surprising thing is that so many countries continue to line up to compete for the privilege of spending oodles of money on a short-term sporting event rather than on long-term investments in the health and education of their own people.
The Olympic ideal of international brotherhood and sisterhood was shown to be lip service when Hitler was permitted to host the games in 1936. The slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich games in 1972 was another revealing moment of human insensitivity, especially when the games in Munich continued as if nothing had happened.
I had a chance as a reporter in Montreal to see first-hand what the Olympics were about, and my memories have left me a contrarian-for-life. Politicians seeking glory is how it starts. And, while it may end with Olympic glory for elite athletes, any thinking person has to ask at what price and at whose expense?
I remember being in Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies of the Montreal Games. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were there, as were our political leaders, and, while everyone already knew the story of scandalous overspending that was part of the Montreal Olympic experience in that summer of 1976, everyone pretended they didn’t know a thing. It was like a moment the lights went out in everyone’s brain.
The games proceeded without incident, but, when they were over and all the bills came in, it was much worse than anyone had imagined. What the commissions of inquiry unravelled was shameful.
Forty years later, it would be nice to think that some good was served by hosting the 1976 Olympics in Canada, but not a single thing comes to mind. And the nightmarish aftershocks keep on as Montreal’s infrequently used Olympic Stadium still bleeds money to keep it standing.
As a lasting monument to stupidity, the cost of tearing down the stadium would be in the $500 million range. But, with Quebec-style cost overruns, it might cost another billion or so.