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.
Australia at the Games
Montreal was the modern nadir of Australian Olympic representation. The team of 184 athletes, 149 men and 35 women, returned without a gold medal. In total, five medals were won: one silver and four bronze. It was the first time Australia had not won a gold medal at the Games since 1936, and also the lowest medal total since then.
The silver medal was won by the men’s hockey team, its third medal in four Olympics. The team entered the final as favourites but lost 1-0 to New Zealand. The four bronze medals were won in three different sports. Swimmer Stephen ‘Super Fish’ Holland was third in the 1500m freestyle. Sailors Ian Brown and Ian Ruff won bronze in yachting’s 470 class, with John Bertrand third in the Finn class (Bertrand was later skipper of Australia II in Australia’s successful 1983 America’s Cup campaign). In equestrian, the three-day eventing team of Bill Roycroft, his son Wayne, Denis Piggott and Merv Bennett won bronze. It was Bill Roycroft’s third medal and fifth Olympics, joining kayaker Dennis Green as a five-time Olympian. Two other Australians also became five-time Olympians in Montreal: canoeist Adrian Powell and modern pentathlete Peter Machen.
Sprinter Raelene Boyle carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony. She was to endure a disappointing end to her Olympic career, placing fourth (behind three Germans) in the 100m final and being disqualified for a false start in the 200m semi-final. Hockey’s Robert Haigh, who won his second silver medal, carried the flag in the Closing Ceremony, becoming the second hockey player to do so. A performance of note was fencer Ivan Benko, who placed sixth in men’s foil, the best individual result by an Australian in his sport.
What the modest results of Montreal did do was reveal how closely associated with our national identity was our sporting success: people cared about the lack of medals. The outcome was many positive administrative steps to improve elite and state-based sports programs across the country. No initiative was greater than the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport, now the leading sports training facility in the world. The 1976 athletes were a strong and diverse group – Australia competed in most of the sports – and with proper support many would soon prove their ability at the highest levels.