Friday, January 27, 2012

The Hangover '76

On the morning after the 1976 Montréal Olympics closing ceremonies, very early, my older sister, older brother, parents, and I piled into our rented car to drive to Trois-Rivières.  We were leaving my brother there to take part in a 5-week French-immersion program.  Our younger sister Mary had been whisked away by some of the ubiquitous visitors that always seemed to show up when Montreal had a party, and was enjoying cottaging with cousins in Tidnish, Nova Scotia.

As we drove down the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, and looked over at the unfinished Olympic stadium (looking incongruously like an alien space ship that had landed in a residential neighbourhood) we had the feeling that the city of Montreal was breathing a sigh of relief.  More likely, it was hung over.  The Olympics had been a splendid party.  Montreal had even been privileged to experience the frantic anxiety of an approaching event that one is not quite ready for; and the lost tempers that can result.  But, like Christmas and birthdays and any festivity you can think of, the day arrived, ready or not, and we had fun.

My 1967 memories of Expo are all expressed using passive verbs, because that’s what it was like for me: a five-year-old who was taken around to see the sights.  In the summer of 1976, I wasn’t taken anywhere, I took myself.  Along with various family members, I travelled by public transport all over Montreal during the Olympics, enjoying the crowded metros full of fit and foreign-looking people, and occasionally attending an athletic event.  We didn’t go to any of the sensational events; the tickets to those had been snapped up very early on.  But that didn’t matter.  The fun part was being out in the crowds, and then watching the Olympic dramas on TV.  Those that are foremost in my memory are Nadia Comaneci (especially notable was the fact that she was my age), East German female swimmers with their muscular arms and gold medals, and Canadian Greg Joy’s silver in the high jump.

The closing ceremonies (watched, by us, on TV) were great entertainment.  During the festivities, the huge screen inside the stadium played a live broadcast from Moscow: a cheerful welcome to the world to join them there in four years.  Welcome or not, much of the world didn’t end up attending the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union; because by then, welcome or not, the Soviets were in Afghanistan.

As with Expo 67, the urge to escape the excitement was strong; therefore, the vehicle that headed down the St. Lawrence River the morning after the party was a two-week rental, full of camping equipment.  Characteristically of my family, we had no plans beyond dropping off Murray in Trois-Rivières…but the four of us that were then left in the car settled on a beautiful journey down the north shore of the St. Lawrence, across the wide river by ferryboat, around the Gaspé peninsula and finally, to our surprise and everyone else’s, to cottage country in Tidnish; with the slam of a cottage screen door preceding Mary’s enthusiastic greeting.  It was a nice wrap-up to the busy weeks in an Olympic city: a peaceful sojourn with family by the shores of the Northumberland Strait.

But for Montreal, the after-effects of the party lasted another thirty years.  The specter of Olympic debt rattled around the background of my teen years like the tinny music coming from the AM radio in my sister’s room down the hall.