The Olympic Stadium in Montreal is a multi-use facility in the city’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district. It was constructed as the centerpiece of the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, and is informally known as “The Big O” after its ring-shaped roof. Its capacity of up to 66,000 – depending on seating configuration – makes it the largest sports stadium anywhere in Canada. It has no anchor tenant, since the former Montreal Expos now play across the border in Washington, D.C. The huge financial loss suffered by hosting the Olympics, together with the lack of a main tenant, has led the stadium being seen as a white elephant.
Roger Taillibert, a French architect, was commissioned to design the stadium. He chose a highly innovative design in the Organic Modern style. His design included provision for a retractable roof, which in the 1970’s was a very unusual feature. The roof was to be controlled by a 574-foot inclined tower, the tallest of its type in the world. Directly beneath this tower is the 50-meter, Olympic-size swimming pool. The base was also the location of the Olympic velodrome, which has now become a museum of nature. An addition to the original stadium design was a multi-floor observatory, reached by a funicular railway with the ability to carry 500 people each hour.
The original plans called for construction of the stadium to be completed by 1972, but in the event this target was missed. Severe delays were caused by a long-lasting strike by construction workers, and by problems getting the unusual design to work properly. Even by the time of the Olympics four years later, parts of the tower were still incomplete. The roof was not imported from a French warehouse until the early 1980s, and the stadium was not truly completed until 1987. Five years later, it was decided to keep the roof closed to protect it from damage in high winds.
Financial and Other Problems
It was originally estimated that the Olympic Stadium would cost about $134 million Canadian dollars to produce, but a variety of problems progressively inflated this figure and costs had almost doubled by the time it was opened. In 1976, the provincial government of Quebec imposed an extra tax on tobacco to help repay its debts on the structure, and three decades later around 8% of all cigarette taxation was still going to the Olympic Installations Board. At that point, the stadium was finally fully paid for, by which time it had cost around $1.6 billion Canadian. Only London’s new Wembley Stadium had cost more.
A number of other problems have also hit the stadium over the years. These range from repeated problems operating the retractable roof – leading to the eventual decision to keep it permanently closed – to a damaging fire around the tower area in the 1980’s. There have also been multiple falls of concrete, although no fatalities have resulted. The new, non-retractable roof in turn failed in 1999, after a heavy snowfall had proved too much for it to support. After more than a decade of legal wrangling, the Quebec Senior Court ruled that the original contractor should not be held liable for these problems by its sub-contracting partners.
In recent years, the Olympic Stadium has seen high-profile use for Canadian football, baseball, and soccer games, including current Major League Soccer team, the Montreal Impact. The Montreal Alouettes of the CFL played there from 1976 to 1986, and then again for a couple years in the late 1990’s. It has since been used only for playoff games, although the Grey Cup – the CFL’s most prestigious event – has been held at the stadium on six occasions. The stadium was also briefly the home of American football when the World League’s Montreal Machine team was based there in the early 1990’s. The stadium has also seen some pre-season use by NFL teams.
Perhaps the best known tenants of the Olympic Stadium have been the Montreal Expos baseball team, which were based there from 1977 until the franchise left Canada in 2004. The venue was not ideal for baseball, as lines of sight were poor. The requirement of Canadian football, which demands a field 90 feet longer than for its American counterpart, also was an issue. Nevertheless, the stadium proved to be quite popular with fans. In the early 1980’s the Expos actually drew larger crowds than the New York Yankees or Mets.