Remember the Montreal Olympics? That was back in 1976. Before Barcelona. Before Seoul and Los Angeles. It was even before Moscow.
The folks in Quebec remember. They're still paying.Nearly two decades after the last javelin thrower packed up his spear, the province of Quebec owes $304 million for the Olympics on the St. Lawrence. What's more, the debt is getting bigger.
Olympic Stadium, the concrete flying saucer with the tent roof where the Expos now play baseball, is known locally as the "Big O." And sometimes as the "Big Owe."
So far, the 1976 Olympics have cost about $1.7 billion, including about $750 million in interest.
The city of Montreal paid off its $150 million share earlier this year, but the province is struggling.
Many still remember the words of former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, who said in 1971: "The Olympic Games can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby."
With the city of Quebec now in the running for the 2002 Winter Games, folks are keeping a sharp eye out for pregnant men.
"There were additions made to Olympic Stadium," said Pierre Bibeau, chairman of the Olympic Installations Board, which manages the facilities left over from the 1976 Games and handles the debt. "If there were only the stadium, it would have been paid off seven or eight years ago."
The province dedicated 10 percent of revenues from tobacco taxes to the Olympic debt. Last year, that amounted to $28.5 million. Since then, however, Quebec slashed tobacco taxes as part of its effort to curtail cigarette smuggling. That took a chunk out of revenues. This year, the board estimates it will receive only $17 million from tobacco taxes, not even enough to cover the $19.5 million interest payments.
Quebec refused a recommendation by the board to throw the Olympic debt into the overall provincial debt along with hospitals and schools, burying it in general funds. Instead, the budget announced last week provided for incremental increases in the amount of tobacco taxes going to the debt.
Under the new arrangement, Bibeau hopes the 1976 Olympic debt will be retired sometime between 2005 and 2008.
Added costs came from the addition of a tower, which makes the stadium look like a humongous silent butler; building a removable kevlar roof that no longer is removable; transforming the velodrome into a biodome; and from renovations to make the Big O suitable for trade shows.
While in some ways the stadium has become a symbol of Montreal, for many it has become an object of ridicule, not only for the debt that won't go away, but because of a series of mishaps.
In 1991, a 55-ton concrete beam fell off the structure. Nobody was injured, but the stadium had to be closed, forcing the Expos to spend the last weeks of their season on the road. A costly series of rips in the kevlar roof kept sewing machines busy, eventually leading to a decision to close the roof permanently. And just this January, part of an interior dividing wall crumbled.
"It's because it is out of the ordinary that the stadium is the target of this sort of caricature," Bibeau said of the public ridicule.
Despite all the negatives, studies show the Olympic park adds $78 million a year to the Montreal economy.
"If ever we could lift this mortgage, the stigma of the Olympic debt . . . I think the image of the Olympic Stadium as such would change," said Bibeau.