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Gristmill: Olympics on the Cheap

Wed, 08/04/2021 - 17:30
A press photo of the 800-meter final at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. That's Alberto Juantorena of Cuba with his arms raised. Rick Wohlhuter of the U.S. took bronze, and Steve Ovett of Britain, who would win the gold four years later in Moscow, is at right.
Wikimedia Commons

Well done, NBC. You sensed my vulnerability as a cable cutter and with your Olympics programming hooked me on your $4.99 a month Peacock streaming service.

For a week and a half now I’ve been obsessed, watching the Games whenever I can, through all the excess talk, past the void of empty seats.

And naturally there comes the reminder of my own Olympics experience in Montreal in 1976, “on a budget.” That was my father’s description, I can’t say I’d have known any better as a 9-year-old. A drive straight up into Oh Canada in a Saab 96 (that’s the old rounded, two-door model), crashing on the floor of an acquaintance’s apartment, meals of Oscar Mayer olive loaf on Wonder Bread, downtime spent with my nose in a Mad magazine.

But mostly it had to do with the ticketing. We hit whatever was available at the lowest price — a lot of soccer, a little bicycle racing on the indoor oval. For years I kept the stubs in a cigar box along with a sew-on patch of the mascot of those Games, Amik the beaver.

My father loved the freebie, the harmless con, and I remember our using tickets to a dead-end soccer match for entry to a better event — they simply looked too much alike for the harried ticket taker to notice or care.

But of course those Games were famous as the opposite of budgeted. The epic cost overruns — never again equaled, which is saying something given the International Olympic Committee’s long tradition of corruption — nearly bankrupted Montreal. The legacy: leftover acres of concrete and giant gray sporting venues more suited to the Soviet Bloc.

That and something else. Bruce Jenner’s dramatic, record-setting gold medal win in the decathlon. We were there, cheering from the nose-bleed seats. My grandfather, an Olympics fan his whole life, one who’d traveled all over the world to see them, had joined us. An excellent athlete in his day, and later a phys ed teacher, football coach, and athletic director, he knew what he was seeing.

“What a man!” he shouted as Jenner sealed his triumph in the 1,500 meters.

At the time, yes.


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