Olympic Park sits north-east of the downtown core and is tucked away on the edge of Viauville, right by Pie-IX station. The surrounding area is mostly residential, with a few stores sprinkled here and there, and main streets are often four lanes wide. There are very few attractions drawing crowds to the area beyond the park, making foot traffic light. It was nearly 40 years ago that Montreal played host to the XXI Olympiad—the first ever held in Canada. Nowadays, the legacy of those Olympic Games is disputed. The Games themselves were largely successful, but once the flame was extinguished, massive debt that lingered made many taxpayers wonder whether it was all worth it.
Over the years, many of the venues have either begun to serve a new purpose or have been sold. The Velodrome, which played host to indoor cycling and judo events, later became the Biodome. Maurice Richard Arena, built to house Olympic boxing and wrestling, is now one of the city’s many ice rinks. The Olympic Village was sold in 1998 and is currently used as office space. Olympic Stadium, however, once the crown jewel of the Games, remains empty on most nights. Its high cost, rough condition, and slim usage have made it a sticking point for those who label the 1976 games a failure.
The “Big O,” as it is nicknamed, will play host to just three events this month: two soccer matches and a monster truck rally. The stadium is closed during the winter months due to safety concerns involving snow build-up on its roof. In the early days of the Montreal Expos—the original tenants of the venue who later moved away in 2004—the stadium gained a reputation as being one of the loudest in professional sports. These days, with no team to call its own or fans to fill the seats, it remains silent. The tower at its north base, the tallest inclined tower in the world, is typically busier than the stadium itself, providing a view of both Olympic Park and Montreal’s downtown. In 2012, after 35 years of sitting idle, the Esplanade just outside the stadium was overhauled and is now home to a skating rink in the winter and various events during the warmer months. Despite the many efforts to make Olympic Stadium an attractive destination again, it seems destined to remain a burden rather than a blessing for the city of Montreal.
“The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit, than a man can have a baby,” Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau infamously proclaimed when the city was awarded the games. Drapeau, however, was clearly mistaken, as various complications and worker strikes led to skyrocketing construction costs.
For many cities vying for future Olympic Games, the 1976 Olympics have become a cautionary tale of sorts; it wasn’t until December of 2006 that Montreal was able to finally pay off its $1.5 billion Olympic debt. The final price tag was drastically higher than original predictions, and the Olympics nearly bankrupted the city. Olympic Stadium even earned the tongue-in-cheek nickname, “The Big Owe.” In the end, a large portion of the debt was paid off using revenue from a tobacco tax.
French architect Roger Taillibert designed nearly all the venues in Olympic Park, including Olympic Stadium, but was unapologetic about rising costs in the years prior to the games.
“Why should we recover money spent on public facilities?” Taillibert told the CBC in an interview before the games. “They are public facilities. It’s like a highway—it’s a need for the community. A hospital doesn’t have to recover its money, does it?”
Unlike a hospital, Olympic Stadium has done very little to truly help the public. Initial estimates for its cost were around $150-200 million, but when construction was finally completed in 1976, the stadium had cost $770 million and the retractable roof had yet to be installed. Nowadays, the roof is the source of significant woe. It no longer opens, and the surface is damaged by constant rips, thus requiring regular repairs. In 2012, maintenance costs were around $400,000 for 1,240 rips, but those costs doubled in 2013, with the number of rips practically tripled. To date, Olympic Stadium has cost around $1.5 billion—a sum that continues to rise.
These sorts of repairs would seem far less significant if the stadium was able to generate revenue, but that is not the case. The building hasn’t been the permanent home of any professional team since 2004, and musicians coming to town to play in front of large crowds now mostly end up at the Bell Centre or Parc Jean Drapeau.
While the Montreal Alouettes and the Montreal Impact, the city’s CFL and MLS franchises respectively, both occasionally play big games at Olympic Stadium, it’s the Montreal Expos—who called the building home for 27 years—that are most often associated with the venue. The Expos’ move to Washington 10 years ago did not come as a surprise. For years attendance had been low, and the lack of a competitive team made it difficult to change that. On most nights, between 10,000-15,000 fans walked through the turnstiles at the cavernous Olympic Stadium. This was a far cry from the early 1980s, when the Expos would rank near the top of the National League in attendance each season.
Many fans now see the 1994 MLB player strike as the beginning of the end. Crowds in the years prior to 1994 had begun to thin, but the Expos looked like a lock for the World Series that season. When the season was cancelled, Montreal held a 74-40 record and was six games ahead of the reigning NL Champion Atlanta Braves. Following the strike, several core players were either traded or not signed as part of cost-cutting measures, and fans were left wondering what could have been. It was clear that the Expos were on their way out by the time 2004 rolled around. In each of their final two seasons, the Expos played 22 home games in Puerto Rico and were dead last in attendance both years. In 2005, the Expos became the Washington Nationals, and Olympic Stadium was left empty.
A decade after the Expos’ departure, baseball returned to Olympic Stadium in the form of two exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets last weekend. Blue Jays President Paul Beeston is hopeful about baseball returning to Montreal, but facilities remain an issue for him.
“What they need is a stadium,” Beeston told Sportsnet last fall. “And if they get a new stadium, Montreal is a great baseball city.”
With or without a baseball team, however, the city of Montreal sits at a crossroads with respect to Olympic Stadium—and it will need to make a decision soon. The stadium costs taxpayers more money each year, but delivers very few benefits. It will either need to be torn down or drastically overhauled, neither of which is attractive in fiscal terms. A new roof will clearly be needed if the facility is going to remain, but it will not come cheap. According to the CBC, a fixed roof would cost around $200 million, and a retractable roof at least $300 million. On the other side of the coin, razing the stadium, tower, rotunda, and surrounding parking lots will also be an expensive proposition. One feasibility report from 2009 estimated a cost of around $700 million, though the author of the report, Gino Lanni, has said that the margin of error used was high enough that the findings could be skewed by a couple hundred million dollars.
Those in favour of investing more money in the stadium need to be certain they aren’t committing to this due to the sunk costs–unrecoverable, wasted investments—that Olympic Stadium represents. Some will argue that Olympic Stadium is an integral part of the city’s history, which while valid, is not enough on its own. Other arguments in favour of refurbishing the stadium hinge on possibilities that are far from being certain: a new baseball team, or Canada hosting the 2026 World Cup. As long as these sources of future revenue remain uncertain, more money should not be poured into the stadium.
Though it may hurt in the short term, demolishing Olympic Stadium is necessary for the city to finally move out from under the shadow of the 1976 games. Montreal has the opportunity to show former host cities in similar circumstances that it is never too late to fix an old mistake. Nearly 40 years after it first opened its doors, it is time for the city to say goodbye to Olympic Stadium.