A Debate of Olympic Proportions

What should we do with the Olympic Stadium?

It’s an odd question to be taken so personally by so many citizens, but ask around and you’ll quickly discover a wide variety of passionate arguments and proposals. Montrealers have a tendency to regard the stadium as their own, as though we each individually own a portion of it and are collectively responsible for its future.

The reality, as with most things concerning our city, is that the Big O is owned and operated by the provincial government. Technically it belongs to all Québécois given that it was paid for with provincial tax revenue. That said, the billion-dollar price tag of the 1976 Summer Olympics, and the Games’ apparent inability to secure long-term investment in our city is a shame oddly carried on by the people of the city, as though it was a penalty for having electing Mayor Jean Drapeau in the first place.

So when the question is posed, especially to those who were alive to witness the Games and the immediate aftermath, some will invariably answer they’d like nothing more than to see the whole stadium destroyed and redeveloped into condominiums. The thinking goes that at least in this way the city could benefit from additional revenue via property taxes and the land would finally give something back after sucking up so much money.

It’s a tempting proposal, but it’s also a cop out demonstrative of a local lack of confidence. Of course the city could always use more tax revenue, and the proximity to Saputo Stadium, the Biodome, the Botanical Gardens and Planetarium would certainly make the Olympic Park an ideal location for residential redevelopment, be it into condo towers and/or a hotel.

But before we call in the demolitionists, perhaps we should consider the most basic answer to the question “what does one do with an unused Olympic Stadium?”

The answer is very straightforward. You have another Olympics.

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At the time (nearly forty years ago) the Montreal Games were one of the boldest and most expensive Olympiads of all time. Olympic planners were anticipating they’d repeat the success the city had with Expo 67, which brought in 50 million people over six months, and so a massive, futuristic ‘city of sport’ was built as part of the broad architectural modernization of the city going on at the time. Crucially, efforts were made to curb the commercialization of the Games, particularly with respect to corporate sponsorship. The end result was a massive tab that took thirty years to pay off, thanks chiefly to, you guessed it, corruption and collusion in the construction industry. There are a number of apartment towers throughout this city built with concrete purchased to build the Olympic Stadium…

When Los Angeles won the bid to the 1984 Summer Games they sent a delegation to Montreal to study where we went wrong so as to make their Olympiad profitable. The primary recommendation was to use as much existing infrastructure as possible, eliminating a potentially massive drain on resources. Thus, LA84 re-used facilities built for the 1932 Los Angeles Games and other facilities throughout the city. They also commercialized the hell out of it; basically, they did the complete opposite of what we did and came out with one of the most financially successful Olympiads of all time.

The trend over the last few years has been for countries to try and one-up each other by pouring ridiculous sums into their Olympiads and building massive sporting structures with no post-Games business plan. Stadiums and sporting grounds in Beijing and Athens lie dormant. In Sarajevo they’re a prime example of urban decay and environmental reclamation. It’s unclear how well Sochi’s venues will do as winter sports facilities in a region long known as a summer resort with a mild Mediterranean climate. The Russians spent $50 billion on their Olympics; obviously this upward trend in spending is unsustainable in the long run.

For this reason Montreal is in a unique position to make a serious bid for a future Summer Games. Unlike the cities mentioned above, our Olympic facilities are still in use for the most part. Better still, we actually have more large-capacity sporting venues today than we did back in 1976, and these facilities are well distributed throughout the city. All of them are either directly connected to the Métro or within a ten minute walk of a station. With the exception of a velodrome and an Olympic Village, there’s basically nothing new to be constructed as we already have everything we need. The strength of a future bid lies chiefly in this fact: the costs associated with renovating what we have will be far, far less than if we had to start from scratch. And all of our remaining Olympic venues are structurally sound and large enough to merit the investment. Hosting a Summer Olympics may extend the ‘service life’ of our city’s major sporting facilities for twenty years or more. There aren’t many cities in the world as well positioned as us to re-use existing infrastructure for the purposes of hosting an Olympiad.

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There are other reasons why Montreal is particularly well suited to host another Games. First and foremost, our city is immeasurably more hospitable and liveable than it was in the mid-1970s. We have more hotels and more diversity in short-term urban housing options than we did back then, and indeed have also rehabilitated entire urban neighbourhoods since. Iconic quartiers, like the Plateau, Vieux-Montréal, the Shaughnessy Village, Mile End and NDG didn’t have the same cachet back then as they do today. The Old Port wasn’t the tourist draw it is today, and Parc Jean-Drapeau was nothing more than a pile of broken down pavilions. We had none of the festivals that so enliven and define our summers, nor the tourism industry we have today.

In sum, there’s a lot more to do in Montreal these days and the city is in a far better state in terms of its liveability and accessibility; we should want to host an Olympic Games specifically to capitalize on this. Because our city is more accessible and more hospitable, a future Montreal Olympiad could easily be spread out throughout the city and this in turn would guarantee greater exposure of the city to visitors. This was one of the major drawbacks of the 1976 Games – visitors did not get the opportunity to interact much with the host city, save for the central business district. Today we have a sophisticated tourism and hospitality industry, dynamic urban neighbourhoods, well-defined entertainment districts and a more liveable, more engaging urban core.

Suffice it to say we have a lot more to offer and considerable experience inciting people to come and spend their money here. A big-ticket item like an Olympiad has the potential to introduce a lot more of Montreal to a massive, international audience. The only reason it’s not pursued isn’t due to a lack of funds, but simply because the shadow of 1976 looms large. It wouldn’t cost the city much to make preparing an Olympic bid simple another aspect of some person’s job, and there are more than enough urban planning, business and marketing students available to put proposals and documentation together for class credit. Preparing an Olympic bid can be as a simple as a single person’s job, and thus the initial cost is a yearly salary plus benefits. It doesn’t require subcontracting a marketing firm for several million dollars – at least not initially. One person employed full time is enough to get the ball rolling.

Though the Olympic Stadium is generally quiet and empty, activity buzzes all around it. The tired old argument the Big O is too far away from the city to be of any use has been conclusively disproven. Saputo Stadium was built – recently I might add – right next to the Olympic Stadium and is consistently packed to capacity. It is one of three 20,000-person capacity stadiums in Montreal right now, none of which existed or had such a capacity in 1976.

Add to this list Stade Uniprix, the Maurice Richard Arena, Centre Pierre Charbonneau, the Olympic Rowing Basin, the Olympic Pool, the Montreal Aquatics Centre and CEPSUM and you realize we have more Olympic-quality sports facilities today than during our Olympics.

This combination of factors, in my opinion, makes a rather compelling case. No Olympiad is free, but ours could be very economical. The less you spend on infrastructure, the more potential profit. And the more the activity is spread throughout the city, the more engaging and accessible the city is, the more visitors we’ll be able to accommodate. At the end of the day this all means more money coming in to be shared by the citizens of the city. If we could host 50 million visitors in 1967 we could certainly do the same today.

It’s worth thinking about in any case; an opportunity such as this is rare indeed. If every effort were made to be as economical and efficient as possible we could close the door on our Olympic shame by beating the odds and turning a potentially massive profit. This is a good time to shine a light on what our city has to offer, and a better time to prove we can overcome corruption. I can’t think of a better time to begin preparing for such a large-scale event than right now, with the Charbonneau Commission keeping everyone on their toes.

An Olympiad done right, done honestly, done efficiently will serve our city well by re-establishing trust in our elected officials and local contractors. We need to state, clearly and for the record, that Montreal is back and open for business.

 Featured photo by Alain Carpentier