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Sarah Pileggi
February 09, 1976
Beset by labor problems, rising costs, construction headaches and adverse weather, the city is racing the clock to get its facilities in working order for the opening of the Games on July 17
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February 09, 1976

Olympic Nightmare For Montreal

Beset by labor problems, rising costs, construction headaches and adverse weather, the city is racing the clock to get its facilities in working order for the opening of the Games on July 17

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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.

"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.

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