But the biggest of all the Olympic albatrosses must be Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which is still struggling to find a raison d’etre 41 years after it was inaugurated, just in time for the 1976 Summer Games. It has no permanent tenant and hosted just four sporting events last year, getting the most use for monster trucks rallies, a home renovation show and the occasional concert. This summer, it was used briefly to house asylum seekers who crossed the border from the United States.
The stadium has cost so much taxpayer money over the decades that the Big O, as it was affectionately known by Montrealers for its shape, has morphed into the “Big Owe.” Yet the 56,000-seat venue is about to get another cash infusion. The Quebec government has announced that it plans to spend between $156 million and $195 million for a new roof.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said he has no choice. “We can’t use it if we don’t repair the roof,” he told reporters after the announcement. “It’s out of the question for us to leave the stadium adrift and to let it crumble away over time.”
Jack Todd, a sports columnist with the Montreal Gazette, thinks that would be a good alternative. He called the stadium “an ugly, ruinously expensive concrete stain on this city, a money-gorging rat hole down which whole generations of weak-kneed, jelly-spined politicians have happily poured our hard-earned tax dollars.”
The original roof, a Rube Goldberg contraption that was supposed to retract using a system of steel cables and pulleys hanging off a massive tower, never worked. When the facility was finally finished a decade after the Games, a Kevlar roof was installed. After it ripped repeatedly, it was replaced by a second one 20 years ago, which is still in use. Neither seemed designed for winter.
The current fiberglass membrane cover is a handyman’s nightmare. In 2016 alone, it ripped 677 times. Over the past 10 years, it has had 7,453 tears. The roof is so weak that the stadium can’t be used as an indoor venue if 1.2 inches or more of snow is forecast.
The stadium’s cavernous design proved a disaster for major league sports and is blamed in large part for the departure of the Montreal Expos baseball club for Washington D.C. in 2004. There’s talk of bringing back the Expos but only if a new stadium is built. The Montreal Alouettes football team and the Impact pro soccer franchise rarely use the Olympic Stadium for a playoff game, preferring more suitable venues elsewhere.
The stadium ended up costing taxpayers $1.2 billion, about 10 times the original estimate, and it took 30 years for Quebec province and the city of Montreal to pay off the bill. In 1991, a 55-ton concrete beam crashed to the ground inside the stadium, and in 2012 a large concrete panel collapsed in the parking garage. No one was hurt in either incident.
Lately, there has been a bit of good news about the facility. After remaining empty for 30 years, the slanting 574-foot tower that hovers over the stadium is finally getting a tenant. The Desjardins credit union has agreed to lease seven floors of the tower and will move more than 1,000 employees there next year after the government agreed to spend $34 million on renovations.
There’s been talk of demolishing the stadium over the years, but the president of the Olympic Installations Board says that would be folly. Michel Labrecque claimed it would cost as much as $549 million to dismantle the stadium using 75,000 trucks to remove steel, concrete and toxic materials from the site. “You and I will be dead and the stadium will still be there,” he quipped recently.