Memory Rediscovered: The 1976 Montreal Olympics

*This post is a translation. Read the French original here.

Forty years ago, on July 17, 1976 to be exact, the eyes of the entire world were fixed on Montréal. In an Olympic Stadium filled to maximum capacity, the athletes from 92 countries filed in under their respective colours and flags in front of an enthusiastic crowd. After the last Olympic torch bearers, Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, made their entrance into the stadium and lit the flame, Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed that the Games of the XXI Olympiad were officially open. For the next two weeks, 6,084 athletes fought for gold, silver and bronze medals in 198 competitive sports in Montréal.

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Photo: Women race to the finish line

Memories rediscovered

I didn’t think I had any memory of the 1976 Olympics. I was 10 years old at the time. In my memory, I spent the summer at my family’s cottage in Domaine-du-Lac-Opéra in the Lanaudière area – the name seems to bring to mind the image of some fancy resort, but in reality it was a small group of cottages around the most modest of artificial lakes – far from the big city and the Games. What I remember about the summer of 1976 was spending time outdoors, riding my bike, in the woods and along the water’s edge. Perhaps I sat in front of the old black and white television at the cottage once or twice and saw the live images from the stadium, the velodrome or the Olympic pool. But that’s it.

The first time that I saw the official film of the Montréal Olympic Games, Games of the XXI Olympiad (1977), produced on behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and filmed by a team from the NFB, boy was I surprised to discover that, in fact, I had a ton of memories of the Games! Just like Marcel Proust’s little madeleine in À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time], the film had awaken in me memories that had been sleeping deep in my memory.

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Photo: Bruce Jenner, mid-jump

The unfinished stadium, with no mast; Mayor Drapeau’s mug, proud and solemn, the mastermind behind bringing these Games to Montréal; the perfect scores of Nadia Comaneci; the domination by the Eastern Bloc athletes; Canadian high jumper Greg Joy’s silver medal; Bruce Jenner, crowned Olympic Champion in the decathlon; the huge Russian weightlifter Vassili Alexeiev, whose name I didn’t know at the time, nicknamed the world’s strongest man; the passionate commentary by Richard Garneau and his colleague Jo Malléjac at the athletic events; the end of the Games when Canada did not win a single gold medal, a first for a host country. All that came back to me in a flash!

Games of the XXI Olympiad

Games of the XXI Olympiad, Jean Beaudin, Marcel Carrière, Georges Dufaux & Jean-Claude Labrecque, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

I discovered the film in 2010 when I was writing about film editor Werner Nold who had just received the Albert-Tessier Award. A film editor at the NFB for more than 35 years and whose name appears in the credits of nearly 100 productions, he told me at the time that he had literally worked night and day for six months on the editing of the Games of the XXI Olympiad (see the Werner Nold ou les règles de l’imagination, French only). The NFB had sent out 32 film crews, made up of a total of 168 people, including three directors, all under the supervision of Jean-Claude Labrecque, to film images during the two weeks of competition. The editor and his four assistants needed five weeks to watch the 200 hours of material filmed by the teams! The first edited version was 4.5 hours long. The film ended up being two hours.

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Photo: the film crew transports an aerial camera

Aerial Camera

And what a film! Filming at the athlete’s level. Spontaneously captured, spectacular images of now legendary Olympic athletes (Nadia Comaneci, Nelli Kim, Olga Korbut, Bruce Jenner, Alberto Juantorena), and also many other lesser known ones. Images of Montréal at the time, the stadium, the velodrome, which became the Biodome, the Olympic pool, the Olympic pyramids where the athletes stayed. And what can you say about the film’s ending! The marathon runner from Eastern Germany, Waldemar Cierpinski, the most resilient man in the world, according to commentator Richard Garneau, making his way into the stadium in the rain, preparing to win the race and the gold medal, to the beat of André Gagnon’s music. I don’t know about you, but that scene gives me shivers every time!

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Montréal Games, I invite you to watch, exclusively on NFB.ca, Games of the XXI Olympiad. You can also watch other films on this historic event by browsing our selection at The 1976 Olympics: 40 years later.