Light the flame and sound the trumpets. The Montreal Games will go on. They may be riddled with scandal, patched with epoxy and half a billion dollars in the red, but on July 17 an expected 11,138 athletes from 132 countries will march down the hill from the Olympic Village, pass under the Sherbrooke Street viaduct and enter the most expensive stadium ever built, Parisian architect Roger Taillibert's $485 million centerpiece for what were to be the human-scale Olympics.
That was the message that Dr. Victor Goldbloom, the pediatrician-turned-politician who has served for the last 10 weeks as spokesman for the Olympic Installations Board (OIB), delivered to a press conference in Montreal last week, just hours before he and Roger Rousseau, the head of the Olympic organizing committee (COJO), flew to Innsbruck to report to Lord Killanin and the International Olympic Committee. "Today," said Goldbloom, first in French, then in English, "I am able to state that as long as we have the continuing cooperation of everyone concerned, and this is a vital point, we expect to be able to provide a stadium and swimming pool which will be ready for the holding of the Games."
"Ready," said the good doctor, but not complete. "Adequate," he said, and "sufficient" and "usable." It is a mildly ironic fact that what started out to be a $310 million, no-frills Olympics but ballooned into a $1.2 billion extravaganza, the costliest in history, will, in the end, be a $1.2 billion no-frills Olympics. Caught up in a nightmare of shrinking time and swelling costs brought on by poor planning, needless early delays, unfamiliar construction techniques, confounding labor problems and galloping inflation, the Montreal Olympics are being scaled down from the monumental to the possible to meet the deadline, only six months away.
The first element of Taillibert's grand design to go was the 525-foot leaning tower of training rooms and restaurants called the "mast" that was to loom 18 stories over the stadium floor and hold in its shaft the mechanism for raising and lowering the retractable stadium roof—the "membrane." Together, the mast and the membrane were to be the 1976 Olympic landmark. The latter, yellow inside and silver out, was to be visible from 10 miles away as it opened like a parachute on cables suspended from the mast. Mast and membrane were to take their place in architectural history alongside those other celebrated symbols—the Eiffel Tower, the Trylon and Perisphere, the Space Needle. But neither tower nor roof was essential to the conduct of the Games in July, so their completion was postponed until next winter, and perhaps indefinitely if Ottawa remains adamant in its refusal to bail out La Belle Province.
February 9, 1976
"It was necessary for us to start again from the beginning," said Goldbloom at his press conference last week. "That is, in the sense of redoing our critical path, to know if it was possible to complete useful facilities in time for the Games."
In the language of architects and engineers, "critical path" means the schedule of construction by which the deadline for completion of a project can best be met. In November, when the provincial government created the Olympic Installations Board to take over from Montreal responsibility for the floundering construction of the main stadium, the mast, the swimming hall and the adjacent velodrome, it was obvious that the existing critical path had wandered off into the woods somewhere and that a new one would have to be drawn up.
The new schedule arrived at by OIB calls for two 11-hour shifts a day on the stadium site, six days a week. At present there are some 2,800 men working days and 750 at night. The average weekly paycheck is between $600 and $700, but a chatty taxi driver can tell you about a young friend of his who operates a crane and averages $1,100 a week. "He is 20 years old and he has $40,000 in the bank. He raises his crane once a day for half an hour. The rest of the time he sleeps inside the crane where it is warm. It is a long day, you know." At last count there were 52 cranes on the muddy floor of the stadium.
The success of the new critical path hinges entirely on the goodwill of the work force. When Goldbloom referred to "the continuing cooperation of everyone concerned" he meant the unions. Striking is the provincial pastime in Quebec. Everybody strikes, and often. The national lottery to determine who should be allowed to purchase tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies was a monumental flop mainly because the scheme involved buying a postcard at a post office and the postal workers struck. There have been 17 weeks of direct strikes by construction workers on the sites of the stadium and the Village and almost as many days have been lost in slowdowns, protests and walkouts.
Among OIB's first concerns was the improvement of morale among workers. A program of daily talks with on-site labor representatives was initiated and the seven-day work week was cut to six. The harassment of workers by local police who had been empowered to make random identity checks to weed out suspected troublemakers was brought under control.
Goldbloom and his associates labored hard to make collaborators out of former adversaries. "It seems to me," he said, "at this time, and I would hope at any future time, that if anyone would come along and suggest to these people that they should interrupt their work that their response would be, 'Our pride is involved in getting this completed and we are going to stay on the job and complete it.' " Pride or no, the province-wide labor contract in the construction industry expires April 30 and the unions are now drafting their new proposals.
Even if all goes well on the labor front, however, many shortcuts are going to have to be taken in order to reach the goal in time. There will be a considerably larger percentage of temporary seating than was originally intended in the stadium and in the swim hall. There will be portable temporary toilets and washroom facilities in many parts of the stadium. There will be temporary electricity and temporary telephones and the offices of officials that were planned for the levels below the grandstands will instead be located outside the stadium in prefabricated temporary buildings. The press center, originally designed for the main stadium, has been transferred to a downtown office building miles away. "It will be finished in time, but it will be a skeleton only," said Guy Pinard of La Presse, Montreal's leading French-language newspaper. "It was supposed to be a big park and instead it will look like a housing development."
Construction on the swimming hall, the cause of great concern for months, is finally moving forward, and the engineering staff has collectively exhaled at last. The hall is located in the foundation of the now truncated mast, and all the technical problems of anchoring that gigantic tilted tower had to be solved before construction could begin on the arched roof of the hall and the pools. The forest of scaffolding that supported the precast concrete forms of the roof as they were set in place is now being removed, and the 50-meter competition pool and the diving well are being excavated. A second 50-meter training pool is another last-minute scratch.
When Goldbloom and the OIB took over in November the credibility of Mayor Jean Drapeau and the officials of COJO was at an alltime low. Practices of obfuscation and indirection maintained over a period of years had gradually driven the Montreal press into a siege mentality that was not easily dislodged. Goldbloom's promises of frankness and regularly scheduled monthly tours of the construction site were reassuring, but problems continued to plague the Games, and each time a new one surfaced the Montreal papers leaped on it and wrestled it to the ground.
BIG SQUEEZE FACES 11,000 OLYMPIC ATHLETES
ICE CRACKED STADIUM RIBS, BOARD ADMITS
OLYMPICS ARE FACING CANCELLATION: STADIUM PROBLEMS PILE UP
ONLY SIX MONTHS TO GO: OLYMPIC TASK SEEMS NEAR IMPOSSIBLE
Some problems were real, some were rumors, almost all were surmountable. But solutions do not make such electrifying headlines. When project engineers said that the cracks in nine of the stadium's concrete cantilever beams, caused by water seeping into the cable ducts and freezing, could be mended with epoxy and would cause no delays, skepticism was rampant, even though the same epoxy is a basic component of the precast, poststressed concrete and steel cable construction that is being used throughout the village.
"There are criers of doom just as there are shouters of good tidings," wrote Montreal Star columnist George Hanson in mid-January. "And of late there have been those shifting from one to the other at 24-hour intervals just to keep the pot boiling."
And the pot boiled on. Two sections of the technical ring that joins the stadium's ribs 165 feet above the stadium floor were 10 inches off line. The engineers insisted that the error was of no great importance, the ring being a service element, meant to house lighting, heating and wiring for television, not a structural segment.
The Olympic Village, four 19-story apartment buildings that look like cross sections of an Aztec pyramid, was built to house 4,000 people in 982 units after the Olympics, but during the Games it would be required to accommodate more than 11,000 athletes and team functionaries. The builders defended themselves, saying they planned temporary partitions in the apartments for privacy, that they expected to house 1,750 of the visitors on floors eventually intended to be a shopping center, that there would be 322 temporary toilets and 1,279 temporary sinks and showers installed and that congestion on the 12 permanent elevators would be relieved by the addition of eight outdoor construction elevators.
A problem that was real and one that nobody could explain away was the coldest January in 74 years. For two days work at the stadium had to be halted when temperatures reached 22 below and gusting winds made the wind chill factor minus 85. However, a freaky thaw set in during the last week of the month and for a couple of days all of Montreal seemed to be melting and sliding downhill toward the St. Lawrence.
In a state of siege and recurring crisis, survival can be dependent on humor, and lately the gallows variety has been rising like bubbles in a tar pit. "My long-time support for the Montreal Olympics," wrote Gazette columnist Charles Lynch, "has been based in part on the feeling that the Games are a war substitute. It begins to look as though we would have done better to settle for World War III."
And George Hanson, discussing the theory that a solution to the enormous problems of hosting the Olympics might be a rotation of four or five host cities, wrote, "Montreal could apply for 1984. Surely by then everything will be finished."
There seems no doubt that the taxpayers of Quebec are going to be saddled with an Olympian debt for all their pains. And the civic scandals over who is being paid how much for what and why will probably reverberate through Montreal politics for years to come. And all those questions about the Games, how to keep them from ruining the fiscal health of cities, how to protect them from politics and terror and gigantism and exploitation, are still without answers.
The marvel of it is that in spite of all that, July 17 can't come soon enough.