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The Montreal Olympic Stadium or the “Big Owe”

The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,” Jean Drapeau, the former mayor of Montreal, Quebec. The lasting legacy of the 1976 Montreal Olympics is the Montreal Olympic Stadium. Nicknamed the Big O or the Big Owe, the Montreal Olympic Stadium did not live up to expectations – aesthetically, functionally, or economically. The Montreal Olympic Stadium cost $3,107,148,600 to build. This is about 1990 percent higher than the original budget of $148,667,400. Along with the cost overruns, the stadium was not completed on time, with construction on the famous retractable roof not starting until after the 1976 Olympics. The 1976 Montreal Olympics was mired in construction planning, budget, design, and contractor bid problems from the outset. And unfortunately, for the citizens of Montreal and the Province of Quebec – the Olympics did lose money and cost everyone for 30 years after the Olympics. Podio, a project management software company, recently released a study on the top Monumental Budget Busters. The Montreal Olympic Stadium topped the list with its 1990 percent cost overrun – ranking above notable over-budget construction projects including the Sydney Opera House, Boston’s Big Dig, and the Denver International Airport. We are looking into the Montreal Olympic Stadium as part of our ongoing series on lessons learned from large-scale construction projects. Read about the Boston Big Dig, Honolulu Rail Project, and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport. Our goal with this series is to highlight lessons from projects that haven’t gone as planned, showing how these lesson should be used to improve the decision-making process before digging starts. If you have large-scale or mega-construction projects you’d like us to take a deep dive on, contact me with your suggestions. What Went Wrong with the Montreal Olympic Stadium? The Montreal Olympic Stadium managed to check all the boxes for what not to do with a construction project. From frantic design changes, a construction strike, controversial contractor bid approvals, through to weather challenges – the construction of this major Olympic center-piece was doomed from the outset. Poor Planning Montreal was awarded the 1976 Olympics in 1970, and for two years very little was done to prepare and plan for the upcoming games. With zero competitive bids, Drapeau chose a design by famed architect Roger Taillibert. It should be noted that Taillibert had a history of cost overruns and schedule delays. With the planning an estimated two years behind schedule and with the Montreal Olympics having a fixed opening date – there was no room for schedule slippage. Ultimately this resulted in double construction crews being on-site, people working double shifts, and costly overtime being a necessity. This led to an over-crowded work area that actually caused further slow-downs and scheduling delays. Project Management Problems The project management problems with the Montreal Olympic Stadium started from the outset: the plans were not delivered until late summer of 1974. The contract to build the stadium was awarded without any public tenders or an open bidding process. The company awarded the contract was already behind schedule and problems in building the nearby velodrome. In 1975, sensing problems, the Olympic Organizing Committee decided to look for alternatives to the delayed Montreal Olympic Stadium. The committee went so far as to find an existing building and suggested building a cheaper stadium. However, Mayor Drapeau refused to entertain this option and the alternative-stadium plan was discarded. As can happen with large-scale construction projects, scope creep invaded the Montreal Olympic Stadium. The architect, Taillibert, added a water cascade at the top of the parking garage (adding $8 million to the cost) – this pushed the parking garages to a cost of $60 million or $13,000 per parking spot. Adding further chaos to an already complicated and chaotic construction site – Mayor Drapeau who had no engineering or architecture experience, frequently delivered construction orders to the people building the stadium. This forced further confusion, errors, costs, and delays. Design Errors While the Montreal Olympic Stadium looked at first-glance to be attractive – the design, architecture drawings, and method of construction ultimately let it down. The stadium was designed to be an elliptical dome with a retractable fabric roof. The dome was designed to use precast complex ribs, with each pair of ribs being a different size – resulting in alignment and posttensioning complications. Additionally, the design of the stadium did not leave room for actual construction. There was no room for interior scaffolding – forcing construction employees to resort to using cranes to hold ribs, workers, materials, and tools. At one stage, there was a forest of 200 building cranes on the stadium site, some from as far as Calgary, Alberta, while gravel truck drivers gleefully drove in, collected their fee, and then drove out the other end, unloaded, and just went around the block again. Skilled workers, at seven 10-hour shifts a week, pulled down $1,500 weekly by doing 2 hours a day of actual work.” 1976 Montreal Olympics: Case Study of Project Management Failure To further compound the stress placed on the construction teams and schedule – the method of using epoxy-glued, posttensioned construction was new to North American contractors. Budget Failures Problems with budget, like those with project management – started from day one. The bid for the 1976 Montreal Olympics was partly based on Montreal’s success hosting Expo 1967.

It should be noted that the final cost of Expo 1967 was $430 million – much higher than the 1964 estimate of $160 million. Consider these basic facts about the budget:

  • November 1972, Mayor Drapeau delivered a budget of $310 million for the total cost of the Montreal Olympics.

  • $250 million was for capital expenditure with $130.8 million for the stadium construction and $16.4 million for the velodrome.

  • The Olympic Village was a noncapital expenditure and budgeted at $5 million.

  • Many critics referred to this budget as the “kitchen table” budget.

To finance the project, $250 million was to come from the sale of Olympic commemorative coins. It should be noted that the Canadian government suggested that only $100 million revenue from coin sales was possible. Remember that this Olympics was to be solely funded by the City of Montreal – with no funding coming from the federal or provincial governments. Mayor Drapeau was famous for saying that the Montreal Olympics would be the first self-financing Olympic Games in history. Ultimately, the final cost for the Montreal Olympics was $1.5 billion – $836 million of this was for the Montreal Olympic Stadium. The cost overruns can be blamed on every decision that went into this project: lack of public tender, the design and use of concrete instead of steel, ignoring recommendations that would have saved upwards of $146 million, an impossible construction schedule, scope creep, and late design changes. Compounding these systemic failures of planning, communication, design, and budget were issues of risk including: the Canadian winter weather, striking employees, alleged corruption, deeper problems with the planning and design of the Olympic village and velodrome. The retractable roof and landmark tower were not completed until 1982. The roof was eventually made of Kevlar and could not retract until 1983. The roof was finally removed in 1998 after a windstorm left a 30-metre-by-15-metre hole in it. The second roof ripped 7,453 times between 2007 and 2017. The Reality of the Montreal Olympic Stadium The Montreal Olympic Stadium has become emblematic of the bigger problems surrounding the planning, financing, and support for the Montreal Olympics. The stadium remains a long-term reminder of what can and will go wrong when the rules of construction planning, financing, scheduling, and project management are ignored. While Mayor Drapeau pledged that the Olympics would be self-financing and would not lose money – both of these promised were broken. Ultimately, the Quebec government was forced to take over the project, removing both Mayor Drapeau and the architect Taillibert from the project. To recoup its costs, the provincial government applied a tobacco tax in May 1976 to the citizens of the Province of Quebec. Finally, in November 2006, 30 years after the Olympics, all debts from these games was paid. And now, in 2019, there are plans to replace the roof on the Big O for a second time. However, the estimated completion date is not yet confirmed – with officials delaying a final decision on the $250 million project, until they have a plan that they believe will be successful. The Montreal Olympic Stadium construction project underscores the importance working with an independent partner who brings an expert and unbiased analysis of your project. About the author Lee Thomas, MBA is the chairman and CEO of Project Cost Solutions. Lee has over 20 years of hands-on operational process experience under his belt. He is deeply committed to seeing your construction project succeed.

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