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Stade Olympique

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The Stade Olympique, also known as Olympic Stadium, was the home of Montreal Expos from 1977 to 2004. Originally built to host the 1976 Olympic Games, it was designed as the first indoor stadium to have a removable roof, but delays in construction and engineering difficulties pushed back the inauguration of that feature for over a decade. During the brief period the roof was operational, it was plagued with technical problems. The Stadium was not ideal for baseball and was blamed for contributing to the Expos' attendance problems in the franchise's last years in Montreal.

The mast at Stade Olympique

Contents

[edit] The Stadium

[edit] The House that Roger Built... but not for baseball

Le Stade Olympique, or more properly, le Stade du parc olympique de Montréal was the home of the Montreal Expos from 1977 until the team's move to Washington, DC after the 2004 season. The stadium had been purpose-built for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, based on a futuristic design by French architect Roger Taillibert (born in 1926), whose only other project at the time, aside from designing a couple of competition swimming pools, was supervising the modernization of the Parc-des-Princes, Paris' football stadium. The stadium that he designed is part of a complex that also included a velodrome (later turned into an indoor zoological and ecological park known as le Biodome) and an Olympic-size swimming pool. It included an enormous amount of underground parking, and a metro line with the Pie-IX station directly underneath the stadium's atrium. Next to the stadium was the city's world-famous Biological Gardens, and a block away was the athletes' village, a group of triangular-shaped high-rise buildings that was turned into a housing complex after the 1976 Games.

The design of the Stade Olympique's exterior was both futuristic and untested. The stadium consisted of a large circular bowl flanked by a huge mast in the shape of a tower leaning at a 45 degree angle over the bowl's opening. The top floors of the tower consisted in a large hangar to house a huge Kevlar tarpaulin that could be lowered along 26 steel cables to cover the bowl's opening in inclement weather. The lower floors of the tower were used for office space, while at the top there was an observation deck with a superb view of downtown Montreal, the Saint-Lawrence River and the distant Laurentian Mountains. The velodrome and swimming pool were wedged partly underneath the base of the mast on two sides of the bowl.

[edit] Troubles is my middle name

From the very beginning, the stadium was plagued by problems. There were important construction delays, strikes by construction workers and wide-ranging graft scandals involving various general contractors hired to build the different components. After the Olympic Games, Judge Albert Malouf (1916-1997) was appointed to preside the "Commission of Inquiry into the Costs of the 1976 Olympic Games Installations" and published a scathing report in 1980 detailing the various scams and cost overruns that took place during construction, and blaming Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau (1916-1999) for poor management; Drapeau promised to write a full and complete retort to the Judge's report, but in spite of editorial cartoonists prodding the Mayor regularly about how far along he was in the preparation of his long-awaited reply, Drapeau never got around to disproving the Judge's allegations. The faulty construction and cutting of corners outlined by Judge Malouf go a long way to explain some of the stadium's later problems, however.

At the time of the Olympic Games, only the bowl - the stadium proper - and the triangular base of the mast had been completed. It would cost 1.5 billion dollars over the next decade to complete the work, by which point everyone involved with the project recognized that it was a giant white elephant that would never earn back even a small portion of its construction and maintenance costs. Most of the costs of completing construction were met by a special tax on cigarettes levied by the province of Quebec, hence the long-running jokes about the ironies of a monument to exercise payed for by smokers, of a ban on smoking in the one place where smokers had earned a moral right to smoke, and on the fact that it was very appropriate that the stadium was shaped like a giant ashtray.

[edit] The Stadium as a sports venue

The Montreal Expos were the stadium's principal tenant, although other sports teams such as the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes, and the short-lived Montreal Manic of the North American Soccer League and Montreal Machine of the World League of American Football also used the facilities. After the Expos' departure, the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer used the indoor venue for some early-season games and set a Canadian record for the highest attendance ever recorded at a soccer game there. On off-days, it hosted everything from trade shows to dirt-bike races to rock concerts (despite its horrendous acoustics), which the Régie des installations olympiques (RIO), the governmental institution formed to run the complex, always claimed were much more profitable than baseball games. The Stadium's roof was finally completed in 1987, and was briefly operational in the 1988 season. However, the operation of the complex system of pulleys, levers and steel cables used to haul the gigantic Kevlar roof in place, and then fold it back into its hangar space, proved to be much more complex than anticipated and never worked properly - not surprising since the total weight of the tarpaulin was 65 tons. The bright orange roof was slit on a number of occasions because of high winds or wrong moves while attempting to open or close it, and had to be patched hurriedly.

The RIO decided that Taillibert's design was unworkable and chose to leave the roof in place with no further attempt to operate it as a retractable structure. The final nail was driven in on June 27, 1991, when strong winds created a huge gash in the Kevlar, and the roof had to be removed for the remainder of the season. The roof was reinstalled after the season, but in 1997, work began on replacing it with a permanent roof made of fiberglass and Teflon. The stadium was open-air again for a while in the summer of 1998 while crews were working on building the structures to support the new roof.

[edit] Baseball at the Big O

[edit] Falling concrete

On September 8, 1991, a few hours after the end of a home game against the Cincinnati Reds, a chunk of a large concrete girder fell to the ground. The RIO closed the stadium for the rest of the season, forcing the Expos to play all their remaining games on the road, while engineers examined all similar girders in the stadium to look for structural defects. They eventually proclaimed that the problem was due to poor welding on a single girder, and not to a problem with the concrete, and that the stadium was structurally sound. However, the Stade Olympique was now considered not just ugly and dysfunctional, but also dangerous by a large percentage of Montrealers.

Stade Olympique during a game

As a baseball stadium, Stade Olympique combined the worst features of the multipurpose cookie-cutter stadiums of the 1960s and 1970s with its own particular quirks. First the playing surface was rock-hard artificial turf which players - especially outfielders - hated. The seats were located far from the action, and were much too numerous: total capacity was close to 60,000, if all the upper decks were filled to capacity, but this only served to give the impression that the games were played before thousands of empty seats, even if attendance was in the mid thirty thousands. Next, the closed concrete bowl produced horrible echo, while the closed roof gave the impression of being locked in a gloomy hangar. Because of the modular, multipurpose capacity of the grounds, there were large seams in the outfield grass that allowed to change the shape of the playing field. Balls would take quirky bounces when hitting those, and outfielders would occasionally trip. Special ground rules had to be devised to cover interference by the series of loud-speakers lining the rim of the bowl: a ball hitting some of them was a home run, and others a foul ball. These home runs were sometimes balls that would have been caught in normal circumstances, as the speakers protruded far over the playing field.

[edit] A few improvements

Some changes were made to the layout of the stadium beginning in 1985, and did improve things a lot, for example: by removing the running track that still circled behind home plate and pushed spectators far back; by creating actual dugouts and not just benches at field level for players to sit in; by moving home plate back a large distance to bring it closer to the fans; and by permanently blocking off large sections of seats far behind the outfield and replacing them with movable bleachers located immediately behind the outfield fence, lowering seating capacity to 46,000. As a result, watching a ball game in Olympic Stadium was a much more pleasant experience in 2004 than it had been in 1977, but by that time, the stadium's reputation as a horrible place to watch baseball was set in stone.

In the stadium's early years, the Expos' marketing department had come up with the slogan: "le fun est dans l'stade" ("The Stadium is where the fun is"), and for a while it was true. There were bands playing in the large atrium beyond the turnstiles as well as games and activities, a large number of restaurants and concession stands, and other modern amenities that put Olympic Stadium at the cutting edge of stadium design in these early years. By the end of the 1980s, though, the team's new owners were complaining loudly about the stadium and the uncompetitive lease that they were forced to negotiate with the RIO. They were now trumpeting the stadium experience as negative and unpleasant, complaining that it was far from downtown and that its location deterred business people from buying season tickets in appreciable numbers. This was largely true, but the negative publicity only accelerated these trends.

[edit] Attempts to build another stadium

By the mid 1990s, the owners had come up with an alternative proposal, a 38,000 seat stadium located in downtown Montreal, with a spectacular view of the city's skyline behind the outfield fence. The project at first generated a lot of enthusiasm, but the insistence of Claude Brochu, the ownership group's general partner, for a large amount of public financing for the project soured the atmosphere. The provincial and municipal governments were not prepared to sink large amounts of money into a new stadium when they had just finished paying through the nose (or lungs) for Olympic Stadium. This led to increased bickering among the owners and drove away other potential investors. In desperation and on the recommendation of interim Commissioner Bud Selig, the owners turned to New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria in December 1999 to bring in additional capital and buy out Brochu's shares. Loria arrived on the scene claiming that he wanted to bring the new projected stadium to fruition, but quickly changed course, abandoning the project within months, and diluting the value of the other owners' share of the team's capital through various dubious manoeuvrings. At that point, with no alternative plan, the team was doomed: it was almost contracted after the 2001 season, then was forced by Major League Baseball to play a large number of games in San Juan, Puerto Rico during its final two seasons in Montreal. The Expos played their last game at Stade Olympique on September 29, 2004 against the Florida Marlins.

Nine and a half year after the Expos' departure, the ballpark was once again host to major league baseball on March 28-29, 2014, when the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the New York Mets for a couple of exhibition games. The series was a huge success, with more than 46,000, most of them wearing Expos' gear, coming to the first game in order to pay tribute to late Hall of Famer Gary Carter. An even larger crowd of over 50,000 attended the second game, at which tribute was paid to the 1994 Expos team whose meeting with history had been crushed by that year's strike.

[edit] Sources and further reading

  • The official web site of the Régie des installations olympiques [1]
  • L'Agence Roger Taillibert (the architect's consulting firm) [2]
  • Claude Brochu, Daniel Poulin and Marco Leduc: La Saga des Expos: Brochu s'explique, Libre Expression, Montreal, QC, 2001. (translated to English as My Turn at the Bat: the Sad Saga of the Expos, ECW Press, Toronto, ON, 2002).
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