Montrealers enthused about new Olympic Stadium dome

The crowning touches were put on the first retractable domed stadium this baseball season as Olympic Stadium finally got its roof, 11 years after the 1976 Olympic Games. There is only one problem: It is not really retractable - at least not yet. But the stadium at last has a roof, and with the Expos still in the race for the National League East division crown, it could just come in handy in October when Montreal weather can get pretty chilly.

And since rivalries between the cities of Montreal and Toronto are just as intense, if not more so, than those between New York and Boston, or Dallas and Houston, or Los Angeles and San Francisco, the whole project has come to mean even more to those involved.

When Toronto announced its intention of building the Skydome, the first retractable domed stadium, Montrealers noted that Olympic Stadium may get there first. But since the roof is presently affixed to the top of the ``Big `O','' the race for retractability is still wide open.

The new roof on Olympic Stadium is made of Kevlar, a canvas-like substance used to make bulletproof vests, and is suspended by steel cables from a 55-story mast that leans out over the opening. Though gray on the outside, the roof has been tinted orange to counter the complaint against some other domed stadiums, that outfielders lose the baseball against the white roofs.

By next year, officials are hoping to have the winch mechanism, which raises and lowers the roof, installed in the top of the tower. When retracted, the roof is to be housed in an opening midway up the underside of the tower. To completely raise or lower the roof is expected to take approximately 45 minutes.

Some people, however, have questioned the entire project. For several seasons the Expos weren't attracting crowds as they had in the late '70s and early '80s. And when the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League folded in June, many Montreal residents began asking out loud why city officials were bothering with a roof at all?

The answer in some ways seems linked to the history of the project and with a desire to finish the job.

When the original stadium design was unveiled in the early 1970s, plans called for the most advanced athletic facility ever dreamed of. It was to have all the luxury and reliability of a domed stadium with two very important extras: fresh air and sun on warm summer days.

In the eyes of Montrealers it was the perfect solution. It would provide a good facility for the Olympics, then would be transformed into a comfortable home for the up-and-coming Expos and for the very strong CFL team, the Alouettes.

The football team played at that time in a large, concrete monolith known as the Autostade. The Expos were still housed in too-small Jarry Park (indeed, construction of a domed stadium had been a stipulation in the awarding of a franchise to the city). And so it was that a new stadium plan was developed.

In terms of completing the job, though, a few snags arose. When announcing his intention to bring the Olympics to Montreal and build an architectural wonder, former mayor Jean Drapeau, uttered the now-famous famous words, ``The Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.'' But though a man has yet to give birth, the Olympics did indeed manage to run up a deficit - and a big one at that.

The Olympic debt was estimated at well over $2.8 billion (almost $800 million the result of the stadium alone), prompting some wits to begin referring to the stadium as the ``Big Owe.''

The federal government made it clear that this was Montreal's debt alone. Eventually, the Quebec provincial government was brought in as a financial partner, but the majority of the tax burden still sits solidly on the shoulders of Montrealers.

When the Olympics opened in July 1976, the stadium was ready to hold spectators, but nowhere near completion. Skyrocketing construction costs and labor disruptions had forced a suspension on building the tower and the roof.

The stadium was still supposed to be completed later, but these plans received another setback in the November, 1976, election of the left-wing separatist government of the Parti Quebecois to run the province. Rene Levesque, the P.Q. leader, was not particularly concerned with the Montreal professional sports teams, which were dominated by the Berger and Bronfman families, both members of the English economic elite of Quebec.

Instead, Levesque concentrated his efforts at stabilizing the province's economy, which was in turmoil as a result of the exodus of English-speaking Quebecers to other parts of Canada and the world recession of the late 1970s.

Then in 1977 a new discovery put the whole project, and even the stadium's future, in peril. A city-commissioned study of the Olympic site showed that the ground was unstable and there were great doubts whether the foundation could support the tower, or even possibly the stadium itself. In short, it was thought that the stadium was sinking.

Eventually, the tower was redesigned to put less pressure on its foundation and some of the other stadium problems were cleared up. By 1984, the tower was nearing completion and the city decided to begin looking at the possibility of completing the final stage of the Olympic Dream - the roof. In 1985, a decision to complete the retractable dome was made.

The roof is now there, but the jury is still out on the question of retractability.

But as the Expos' players arrived back in Montreal after spring training this season, they were treated to the knowledge that they were not going to be rained-out (or snowed-out) this season while playing at home.

The roof in its current immovable state, however, has not met with the blanket approval officials had hoped for. Warm-weather seekers are less than happy walking out of a beautiful, clear day into a hotter indoor facility. Furthermore, the appearance of the roof - which was funded by heavy taxes levied primarily on tobacco products - has apparently led some individuals to react by disregarding city laws against smoking in enclosed public areas. And while there is a policy to fine and expel smokers, officials have pretty much looked the other way, at least this season.

But for the most part, the people of Montreal appear pleased with the new roof for one of two possible reasons: For some, the roof will finally put an end to a sometimes uncontrolled spending spree by city officials that has lasted close to two decades. For others, the roof means a stable, all-weather home for the proud Montreal sports franchises.

Whatever their reasons, Montrealers as a whole appear pleased that the wait is over.

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