In 1976, the Olympics were hosted by Canada for the first time, the first Games in North America since Los Angeles in 1932. The Games were beset by problems, both financial and political. Organisers greatly under-estimated the cost of hosting the Games, with the budget blowing out to four times its initial figure. As well, 24 countries boycotted the Games, 22 of them African nations upset at New Zealand’s participation after an All Blacks rugby tour of South Africa – a curious protest against an action in a non-Olympic sport. There were 1000 less athletes competing in Montreal than in Munich four years earlier.
The star of Montreal was 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, one of the most revered Olympic champions of all time. Comaneci scored the first perfect 10.00 in an Olympic event in the uneven bars during the team competition. She went on to record seven perfect scores at the Games. She ended with three gold, including the all-around title, a silver and a bronze, her success eclipsing the efforts of the Soviet Union’s Olga Korbut, who just four years earlier had been gymnastics’ glamour girl.
In athletics, the Flying Finn Lasse Viren completed a double for the ages, successfully defending his 5000m and 10,000 gold medals from 1972. He also placed fifth in the marathon. Another rare double on the track was achieved by Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena, winning the 400m and 800m. American and German swimmers dominated in the pool, East German women winning 11 of 13 gold medals after having failed to win a single gold medal in 1972. Years later, proof of systematic doping in East German sports programs would lessen the lustre of these triumphs, and many others during a grave period of sporting history.
Winning his second consecutive gold medal was weightlifting super-heavyweight Vassily Alekseyev, one of the strongest men ever to compete at the Games. He set 79 world records during his career, his huge size and appetites (he would breakfast on two dozen eggs) making him a fan favourite.
The push for greater women’s involvement in the Games gained pace in Montreal. Women’s events debuted in basketball and handball, and six women’s events were introduced in rowing. The Soviet Union won both the women’s basketball and handball gold medals. Shooting also celebrated its first women’s medallist, American Margaret Murdoch winning silver in the small bore rifle, three positions, event.
In canoe/kayak, slalom (whitewater) events were held and proved popular. However, they would not appear on the program again until 1992.
The Soviet Union was the most successful nation at the Games, winning 49 gold medals. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was second with 40 gold, with the Unites States third. This was the first time the US had not finished in the top two on the medal table.
A nice aside in Montreal was the lighting of the Olympic flame by two teenagers, Sandra Henderson, of English descent, and Stéphane Préfontaine, of French origins, signifying Canada’s shared heritage. Years later the pair married.