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Montrealers feel a weary sense of déjà vu when they look westward at the financial woes facing Vancouver's Olympic village.

After all, the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games are wrapped in memories of cringe-inducing financial mismanagement. The Games and their woebegone child, the Olympic Stadium, have become less a legacy than a punchline.

Some still talk about blowing the stadium up and starting over, turning the Big Owe into the Big No.

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The dark humour is understandable. It took until 2006 - Nov. 14, to be exact - for taxpayers to finish paying off the $1.5-billion debt on an Olympics that Montreal's mayor had promised would be "modest."

That's 30 years to pay the mortgage on Olympic Stadium and other installations. Not surprisingly, there were no giddy mortgage-burning parties on the streets of Montreal.

The Olympic installations still operate at an annual deficit of about $20-million, requiring an operating subsidy from taxpayers each year. Despite being built for sports, the stadium serves less for athletic events than trade shows since the departure of the Montreal Expos baseball team in 2004, and it's empty more than half the year.

That is one lesson that observers say Vancouver can learn from Montreal: Build installations that will serve Vancouverites and their needs for coming generations.

"You can't build them for 10 days; they have to be useful for the future," said Jean-Claude Marsan, a professor emeritus of architecture and urban planning at the University of Montreal who was a member of a provincial committee on Montreal's Olympic installations.

While Vancouver might take lessons from Montreal, in some measure Montreal's troubles were all its own.

The stadium was conceived by a Paris-based architect whose retractable roof design has virtually never functioned properly. The stadium has not held a winter event since the roof was ripped in 1999; a soccer match is scheduled for next month, but only if there is no snow or ice on the roof - a tall order for Montreal in February.

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Construction of the Olympic installations was also marred by labour strife. The 1980 Malouf inquiry report reproached unions and workers for "illegal acts, work stoppages, harassment and lack of productivity" that contributed to cost overruns.

The Games oversight committee, which was supposed to provide independent supervision, bowed to the will of Montreal's powerful mayor, the late Jean Drapeau.

"They were submitted to the authority of the mayor," Prof. Marsan said. "The mayor ran it alone, like Napoleon."

When all is said and done, and taxpayers add up more than three decades of interest payments, annual maintenance costs and the odd catastrophic roof repair, the total price tag for the Olympic facilities reached $3-billion.

Most of the debt was paid through a special Olympics tax on tobacco products.

No wonder Montrealers aren't spending a lot of time watching Vancouver. They could be saying, "We told you so." But the memories are too painful.

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