The Strange and Expensive History of Olympic Stadium

It’s July 2021, and Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a 56,040 capacity stadium was announced as no longer being in the running to host 2026 FIFA World Cup matches. This is just one of the many times the stadium that greeted the world in 1976 has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Opened in 1976, the Olympic Stadium hasn’t been a stranger to the big occasion, but its legacy has been that of a white elephant, that the city of Montreal has never fully embraced. But why is that? Many cities that build Olympic stadiums and hosted the Olympics before 1976 still have well-used and beloved stadiums to this day, what makes Montreal’s Olympic Stadium so different? This is the strange and very expensive history of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Canada’s most controversial stadium.

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We start in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam May 12th, 1970. Montreal has just beaten out Moscow and Los Angeles for the right to host the 1976 Summer Olympics. As with most cities that are awarded an Olympics, Montreal was now in the business of needing to build a showpiece Olympic stadium and in 1973, a whole three years after being awarded the Olympics, Montreal broke ground on the construction of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The main architect was Roger Taillibert, and he would come up with a bold design.

The stadium would feature a retractable roof, operated by cables that would be suspended from a huge 175-metre tower, the tallest of its kind in the world. At this point, no stadium in North America had a retractable roof. With such little time to build such a massive project, the men in charge, mayor Jean Drapeau and chief architect Roger Taillibert found themselves at the mercy of the Quebec Labour Unions. From December 1974 to April 1976, construction workers would strike for a total of 155 days, with no work being done between May 1975 October 1975, a crucial period in being able to finish the stadium in time.

Olympic Stadium, Montreal

The provincial government in Québec had run out of patience, Taillibert was removed from the project, and the government formed the Olympic Installations Board (OIB) in a bid to get construction back on track. The days lost from striking, alongside Montreal’s notoriously cold winters meant that work would have to be non-stop 24/7 in order to get the stadium ready in time. Come July 17th, 1976, the stadium would welcome the world with the 1976 Olympic Opening ceremony. The stadium looked great on television, but there were still unresolved issues that plagued the stadium. Even as the Greek athletes prepared to lead the Parade of Nations, the Greeks found their entranceway almost blocked off by workers who were desperately clearing debris from the last-minute construction, and the centrepiece tower and retractable roof ultimately weren’t complete in time for the Olympics.

Canada would finish the Olympics with no Gold medals, the first-ever summer Olympics host to not win a Gold. Highlights of the Olympics included Nadia Comăneci’s perfect score in the Women’s gymnastics and five members of the American boxing team winning gold medals in what is regarded as the greatest boxing team of all time.

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By the time the Olympics were over, Montreal was left with an Olympic bill on a scale never seen before. Montreal’s initial cost estimations for the stadium was $134 million, but the final bill would be shockingly much, much higher. The stadium by August 1976 had already run up costs of $795.4 million, equating to $3.59 billion in 2021. This was before the stadium was fully even complete as the tower and roof were still under construction.

By the time the stadium and the rest of the Olympics were fully paid off in 2006, the Stadium costs had skyrocketed to $1.61 billion, making it the second most expensive stadium ever built at the time. The construction and cost were a disaster for the city of Montreal, but at least they had a ready-made tenant for their shiny new stadium.

Enter Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos. Since 1969, they had been playing their home games out of the 28,500 Jarry Park and spent most of their early years anxiously waiting for a new home. After initially being told they would have a domed stadium by 1972, the Expos finally got their wish and the Olympic Stadium was their new home. On April 15th, 1977, the Expos won the first-ever MLB game at Olympic Stadium 7-2 against the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 57,592 fans. The OIB did not actually have a key for the doors on the day, forcing the Expos to use a hacksaw to cut locks. Montreal went on to have a total attendance of 1,433,757 in 1977, a whopping 121.7% increase on the 1976 season.

Olympic Stadium hosts baseball

Even in that first season, the Olympic Stadium had problems as a baseball venue. Like many stadiums of its era, Olympic Stadium was multipurpose, it hosted CFL matches in the form of being the host venue for the Montreal Alouettes. To make Canadian football in the stadium work, the lower tier was further back from the action than traditional baseball parks and was even further back when compared to other multipurpose stadiums in the MLB. Meanwhile, the upper deck seating was amongst the highest in MLB, with most of the seats being so far away from the action that they weren’t used in regular-season matches.

After an attendance of just under 58,000 in their first game, the Expos would average just 17,701 fans for the rest of 1977. The stadium used a grass field during the Olympics, but by the time the Expos took the field, it has been replaced by an artificial astroturf. This astroturf was one of the most infamous fields in baseball history, it was incredibly thin, and so was the padding between the turf and the concrete floor, creating a playing surface that was incredibly tough on the player’s knees and was very unpopular amongst the players as well. The padding on the fence was also dangerously thin, creating an environment that increased the chances of injury for fielders.

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Despite pleas for improvement, the OIB was unwilling to fix those issues. To make matters even worse, the roof wasn’t complete until 1987, eleven years after Montreal hosted the Olympics, making early and late-season games susceptible to Montreal’s cold weather. The construction of the tower and roof was marred with a fire that set the tower ablaze, and even a chunk of the tower fell onto the playing surface in 1986 before construction was complete. Even then, the roof was a disaster. From 1989 to 1999, the roof suffered a lining rip, a tear during a storm creating a 30m x 15m hole and a fifty-five-tonne beam crashing to the ground which caused the stadium to be closed for 94 days.

In 1994, the stadium suffered from a collapsed wall, and when a winter storm damaged the roof badly enough for snow to fall onto the turf, the writing was on the wall for the roof. A new roof was installed in 1998 at the cost of $26 million, but by 1999 the roof again was having problems, again the roof tore in the winter causing ice and snow to fall onto the playing surface. Under these strained conditions, players were discouraged to sign for the Expos and the Montreal Expos ownership grew frustrated with the Olympic Stadium very quickly. Efforts to appeal for a new stadium fell on death ears, the Olympic Stadium simply had cost too much to give up and the financial scars made public funds a very difficult sell.

Related: Canadian Sports Rivalries – Toronto Vs. Montreal

In the end, however, the Expos would leave, financially mismanaged to the point of being owned by the MLB itself, the Expos would even split home games in the 2003 and 2004 seasons in San Juan, Puerto Rico and by the next season, they were relocated to Washington D.C to become the Washington Nationals. Just like that, twenty-seven years of baseball at Olympic Stadium had come to an end.

While the Expos were the tenants that got the most use out of Olympic Stadium, they weren’t the only Montreal sports team to call it home. Halfway through the 1976 CFL season, the Montreal Alouettes moved in and also began calling Olympic Stadium home. The stadium’s dimensions were more favourable to a football spectator experience and initially, it was a match made in heaven. In their thirty-five-year existence, the Expos never won a World Series and only made the playoffs just once in 1981, (although many will point to a Strike in 1994 robbing them of a potential World Series run). The Als meanwhile in the ’70s were a winning machine, having made the Grey Cup three times in six seasons and winning the big game twice. On September 6th, 1977, 69,093 fans attended a game between Montreal and the Toronto Argonauts. This is a CFL record attendance that still stands to this day, and is a higher attendance than be achieved at fourteen of the NFL stadiums today.

The Montreal Alouettes host the Toronto Argonauts at the CFL Eastern final at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, on Sunday, November 21, 2010. PHOTO BY DAVE SIDAWAY /Montreal Gazette files

That season they would have an average attendance of 59,595 fans, also a CFL record. Despite this, problems with the stadium would soon be exposed in the 1977 Grey Cup. Olympic Stadium was the host venue for the game, and a Grey Cup record crowd of 68,318 fans gathered to see the hometown Alouettes take on Edmonton. The weather in Montreal was particularly cold, and because of the lack of roof and the astroturf surface, the turf was effectively a sheet of ice. A consequence of this was routine snaps being fumbled and players falling uncontrollably. But the game is best remembered for the Alouettes putting staples through their shoes to give them better traction and this advantage was decisive as they won the 1977 Grey Cup 41-6, in a game that is now remembered as ”The Ice-Bowl”.

It was their third Grey Cup in eight seasons, but that success was not to last. By 1987, just ten years after that Grey Cup win, Montreal was left without a CFL team after financial turmoil had taken its toll, depriving the Olympic Stadium of a tenant. In 1991, the Montreal Machine of the World League of American Football would play apply their trade at the Olympic Stadium but it was short-lived as the league was suspended after 1992, bringing an abrupt end to football in the stadium again. In 1996, the CFL’s American expansion era came to an end, and the 1995 Grey Cup Baltimore Colts were relocated to Montreal, and just like that, the Montreal Alouettes were back and playing in the Olympic Stadium.

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However, twenty years of financial burden, bad press, roof problems and controversy had taken the shine of the stadium, by 1997, as little as 6,721 fans attended a game against Winnipeg in a stadium that held well over 60,000 and the future of the Als was again questioned. Then came a stroke of luck for the Alouettes, and a nail in the coffin for Olympic Stadium. On November 2nd, 1997, Montreal was set to play the BC Lions in a playoff game, only problem was Olympic Stadium was due to host a U2 concert that exact same day, forcing the Als to find an alternative. The Als played their game at McGill University’s Molson stadium, and the fan excitement was immediate as the game sold out, from that point on, the Als have used Molson stadium as their primary home ever since.

Montreal would continue to occasionally use Olympic Stadium, most notably the venue would serve as the Alouettes home in the playoffs. But since 2012, the Als haven’t returned to Olympic Stadium, opting to play playoff games at Molson Stadium. Again, the roof was a problem, it would continue to be cut up and torn multiple times a year until it was deemed too unsafe to use in times of heavy snowfall, effectively making it unusable for the CFL Playoffs and no longer considered a home for the Montreal Alouettes.

So as of 2012, just six years after being fully paid off, the stadium was without a full-time tenant with the Expos relocation and the Alouettes finding a new home. The stadium has however been able to host many other events during its lifetime. Heavy Weight boxing, Monster Truck rally’s and it was even a site for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada in 1984. The stadium has hosted many concerts, attracting big acts like Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and Madonna. In 1992, the stadium hosted a highly anticipated Guns N’ Roses and Metallica concert. The joint tour by the superstar rock bands made its way to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on August 8th, 1992 with a sold-out crowd in attendance. Metallica performed first and an hour into the set, frontman James Hetfield got too close to the pyrotechnics and suffered third-degree burns, forcing Metallica to apologize to the Montreal crowd and promising a return to Montreal soon before prematurely concluding their performance.

As a result of the abrupt end, there was less than ample time to set the stage for the Gun N’ Roses segment of the concert. But even then, it still took three hours to prepare the stage and the crowd was getting restless. By the time the Gun N’ Roses setlist started, the stage monitors weren’t tuned correctly making it impossible for the musicians to hear themselves. This combined with vocalist Axel Rose having an injured throat, prompted the singer and the rest of the band to walk off the stage after just nine songs, bringing a disastrous gig to an end. Enraged, approximately 2,000 fans took to the streets to overturn cars, smash up windows, start fires and rob local stores in what would be dubbed the “1992 Montreal Riot”. By the time it was contained, it was estimated that the riot accumulated $600,000  worth of damages to the stadium and surrounding areas. The factors that caused the 1992 riot could’ve happened anywhere, but in a way, it’s the type of incident that was destined to happen at the luckless Olympic Stadium.

An overturned car as a result of the riot in Montreal after a Guns N’ Roses and Metallica concert was cut short.

The stadium has occasional use for the city’s soccer team. In 2012, The Montreal Impact were playing their debut season in the MLS, and Olympic Stadium, now with a grass pitch was to be host to special games for the Impact. Although not the primary playing venue, the Olympic Stadium has hosted the Impact’s season-opening games, playoff games and CONCACAF games. The stadium even got the chance to shine in the 2015 FIFA World Cup, most notably hosting a semi-final between The United States and Germany and the stadium was on the shortlist for stadiums to be used for the 2026 men’s edition that will see the tournament be played in Canada. The last time the Impact (now named CF Montreal) played at Olympic Stadium was March 10th, 2020 in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final. The stadium was not used for any CFM games in 2021 but heading into the 2022 MLS season, the Olympic Stadium is slated to be used again for Montreals opening game. It may also be used for Montreal’s CONCACAF Champions League last 16 tie in February, meaning the stadium will have hosted potentially just three games in three seasons, far from regular use.

Another blow came in June 2021, when the Olympic Stadium was removed from consideration for the 2026 World Cup. It was a big chance and opportunity for the stadium to be renovated, but not anymore.

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In Montreal, the stadium’s nickname is “the big owe”, a clear assessment of what the natives think about the stadium. By 2017, it cost $32million a year just to operate the stadium which didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a full-time tenant and once again, is needing yet another new roof. Although construction on what would be the third roof in Stadium history is yet to get underway. In 2016, $498,000 was needed to maintain the roof and over a decade spell, the roof suffered 7,453 tears and is effectively useless in the winter months because of its unstable and unsafe nature, completely making the dome aspect of the stadium irrelevant.

Today the roof still has problems with rips and tears and in its current state, remains perhaps the biggest obstacle in professional baseball ever returning to Montreal. However the stadium remains as a white elephant, there are no plans to demolish it as demolition costs could potentially total to as much as $700 Million. So the stadium is here to stay. It’s not all bad, the Stadium has become an iconic part of Montreal’s skyline and attracts thousand’s of visitors a year with its tower serving as a popular observation deck for the city. Six Grey Cups have been hosted at Olympic Stadium and nine of the ten highest attended games in CFL history have been played at Montreal’s Olympic showpiece. Ending on a hopeful note for the future, The Toronto Blue Jays have played multiple games at the stadium since 2014 and they always draw a big crowd, baseball is still very popular in Montreal and hope still remains MLB will return. While the 2026 World Cup bid retraction was disappointing, perhaps a future expansion or relocation of an MLB team to Montreal would be the spark needed to give the stadium new life as it approaches its fiftieth anniversary.

And thanks to a ban placed on them performing at the venue, Montreal never has to worry about Gun N’ Roses inciting a riot at the Olympic Stadium ever again!

6 thoughts on “The Strange and Expensive History of Olympic Stadium”

  1. You mentioned Pink Floyd. They played there 3 times: 1977, 1988, and 1994. But the 1977 show was pivotal. It was the famous night that the screaming fans so imitated Roger Waters that he spat in a fan’s face. Afterwards, he was so angry with himself, he stated that it was like there was a WALL between the band and the fans. This experience led to the creation of their 1979 album The Wall. The artwork on the gatefold shows inclining tours over fans… very similar to the planned tower.

  2. nice and informative article in a way, though u only mention about CFL and MLB 80% of the time, and MLS and montreal Impact fc have filled the Big O multiple times u mention very little, so saying ur also a soccer (futbol) fan and especially being from scotland u should had emphasize the Global sport more cause very Big historic games have taken place there, especially recent yrs!

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