Montreal Games laid the foundation for a sports development system in Canada

Jim Morris
Yahoo! Sports

Many Canadians remember the 1976 Montreal Olympics for Greg Joy leaping to a high jump silver medal, gymnast Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10, and a monstrous debt that took over 30 years for the city to pay off.

But for athletes and officials within the Canadian sports community the ’76 Games laid the foundation for a funding and development system that allowed Canada to compete on the world stage and contributed to the record-breaking medal haul at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“What it did is stimulate the creation of what we know as the Canadian sports system,” said Bruce Kidd, an author, former Olympian and professor at the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. “It really pumped up the adrenaline to create a series of structures for facility development, coaching, athletes assistant and so on.”

For Sylvie Bernier, having the Olympics come to Montreal lit a competitive flame that resulted in her winning a diving gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She remembers being 12 years old and watching diving at the Olympic Pool.

“It was truly a trigger in my diving career,” said Bernier, who will be Canada's assistant chef de mission at this summer's Olympics in London. “I was sitting in the stands, watching all these divers . . . they were all my idols.

“I remember telling my parents from that day it was in my mind, I wanted to go to the Olympics. I felt it was possible.”

In the years before the 1976 Games, amateur athletes largely funded themselves.

“You would take your gold medal, you would stand in front of a beer store or a supermarket, and sell tags in order to get yourself to the national trials,” said Kidd, who competed at the 1964 Olympics.

Canada being awarded the Games resulted in the creation of Sport Canada, development of the athletes' assistance program and formation of the Coaching Association of Canada.

“What we know today as the state driven and financed high-performance system was really a creation of the early 1970's, with Montreal the driving point,” Kidd said.

The highlight of the Games for most Canadians came on the final full day of competition as Joy battled American world-record holder Dwight Stones and Poland's Jacek Wszola before 70,000 people in the pouring rain at Olympic Stadium.

Many in the crowd booed Stones after it was reported he had criticized Montreal and French Canadians for the way the Games were hosted. Stones denied making the comments.

Wszola won gold with a jump of 2.25 metres. Joy took silver with a leap of 2.23 metres. Stones couldn't match Joy's height, leaving him third. It was Canada's first Olympic track and field medal since 1964 but Joy experienced mixed emotions.

“I was totally focused on winning the gold medal,” he said in a later interview. “When I secured the silver, I was ecstatic. And when I missed the gold I was devastated. You go to win.”

Joy's jump became a point of national pride. For years the clip of Joy clearing the bar was played when CBC signed off with O Canada.

Montreal was awarded the Games on May 12, 1970, at the International Olympic Committee session in Amsterdam, beating out bids from Moscow and Los Angeles. It was the first Olympics held in Canada and they came just four years after 11 Israeli athletes were killed at the 1972 Munich Games.

Queen Elizabeth officially opened the Games on July 17, 1976. Over 6,000 athletes (4,700 men and 1,200 women) from 92 nations competed in 21 sports. Twenty six African countries boycotted to protest a New Zealand rugby team participating in a three-month tour of the racially segregated South Africa.

The Soviet Union won 125 medals, 49 of them gold, to top the table. The United States won 94 medals (34 gold), while East Germany was third with 90 (40 gold).

Canadian athletes won 11 medals (five silver, six bronze). It was the first time the host country of a Summer Games didn't win a gold medal.

Eight of Canada's medals came in the pool, with 14-year-old Nancy Garapick winning bronze in the 100 and 200-metre backstroke.

Prior to the Games, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau made the famous statement “The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby.”

The original cost estimate to host the Olympics was $310 million. Labour problems, the building of the Olympic Stadium, plus the pride of increased security following Munich, resulted in costs soaring to $1.5 billion. The final payment on the Olympic Stadium, known as the Big Owe, was made in November 2006.

Dick Pound, a former executive member of the IOC and a one-time president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said it was the capital costs that blew a hole in the budget. The Games themselves showed a $150 million profit. The event was praised for its organization and innovative sponsorship ideas like the Olympic Lottery.

“Despite all the difficulties, mainly the construction, if you go around the world today with folks that were there at the time, [they will say] the Games were the best organized Games we had ever seen,” Pound said.

Montreal opened the door to Calgary being awarded the 1988 Winter Olympics and Vancouver the 2010 Games.

“I think it demonstrated that Canada could play on that stage organizationally and other wise,” Pound said.

The Games produced many memorable moments.

  • The 14-year-old Comaneci stunned the world by scoring seven perfect 10s. The Romanian won three gold medals. In men's gymnastics, Nikolai Andrianov of the USSR won four gold.

  • In the pool, the U.S. men's swim team won all the gold medals but one. The East German women swimmers won all but two gold medals.

  • American boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis Jr. won gold medals. All went on to be professional world champions, except Davis.

  • Taro Aso, a member of the Japanese shooting team, later was elected Japan's prime minister.

  • During the Opening Ceremony the national flag carried by the Israeli team was adorned with a black ribbon to commemorate the Munich massacre.

  • Women's basketball, handball and rowing were introduced to the Games.

On the more dubious side:

  • A rainstorm doused the Olympic flame a few days after the Games began. An official relit the flame with his cigarette lighter. It was doused again and lit using a backup of the original flame.

  • The only female who did not have to submit to a sex test was Princess Anne, a member of Britain's equestrian team, and Queen Elizabeth’s daughter.

  • Boris Onishchenko, a member of the Soviet modern pentathlon team, was disqualified for rigging his epee to register a hit when there wasn't one. Some of his teammates were so angry they threatened to throw him out of a hotel window.

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