29 November, 2020
First duo to light Olympic Flame, Stephane Prefontaine and Sandra Henderson
First duo to light Olympic Flame, Stephane Prefontaine and Sandra Henderson

The first Summer Olympic Games ever held in Canada launched megastars such as Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, Finnish athlete Lasse Viren, Cuban athlete Alberto Juantorena and some others, but the one thing it lacked was a gold medal for the host country. It was in Montreal 1976 that the incumbent President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach won a gold medal in the team foil event in Fencing. He thus becomes the first Olympian and the First Olympic Gold Medalist to reach the top chair of the IOC. Thomas Bach, born December 29, 1953 served as the President of the German Olympic Sports Confederation from 2006 to 2013.

He was born in West Germany and grew up with his parents until 1977. Bach earned a doctor of law in 1983 from the University of Wurzburg. He speaks fluent French, English, Spanish and German. Besides his Olympic gold, he had won silver, gold, and bronze team medals at the 1973, 1977 and 1979 world championships, respectively. Following his election as IOC President, Bach in 2013 stated that he wished to change the Olympic bidding process and make sustainable development a priority. He felt that the current bidding process asks “too much, too early.” These proposed reforms became known as Olympic Agenda 2020 and were all unanimously approved.

The 1976 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXI Olympiad and commonly known as Montreal 1976, were held from July 17 to August 1 in Montreal, Canada. Montreal was awarded the rights at the 69th IOC Session in Amsterdam in 1970, over the bids of Moscow and Los Angeles. The Olympic facilities, while costly, became Montreal landmarks and many are still used for training and competition. One of the streets surrounding the Olympic Stadium was renamed to honor Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics.

In total, 6,084 athletes (1,260 women and 4,824 men) from 92 nations took part in the Olympic Games. Twenty-nine countries, mostly African, boycotted the Games when the IOC refused to ban New Zealand, after the New Zealand rugby team toured South Africa in defiance of the United Nations’ calls for a sporting embargo. Taiwan also boycotted and this meant the loss of over 440 competitors. Moreover, Montreal lost a million dollars in seat refunds and event cancellations in the first two days.

The Olympic Torch

An important part of any Olympic Games is the Torch Relay. On July 13, 1976, before a gallery of dignitaries, Maria Moscholiou knelt near the Temple of Hera in Olympia and lit the Olympic flame. The relay then travelled more than 550 km on Greek soil before reaching Athens on July 15; there, the flame was placed before a sensor, which detected the ionized particles of the flame and converted them into impulses that were transmitted by satellite. In Ottawa, a receiver picked up the signal and triggered a laser beam that recreated the flame, starting the Canadian leg of the torch’s journey to Montreal. It was the first time such technology had been used to transmit the Olympic Flame.

At the Opening Ceremony, a trumpet fanfare announced the arrival of the Olympic Flame. The torch was carried by 15-year duo Stephane Prefontaine and Sandra Henderson, chosen as representatives of the unity within Canada’s linguistic heritage. This would also be the first time two people would light the Olympic flame. The duo would make a lap of the stadium and then climbed a staircase on a special dais at the center of the stadium to set the Olympic flame alight in a temporary white aluminum cauldron. The flame was later transported to a more permanent cauldron just outside the running track to burn throughout the duration of the Games.

Opening Ceremonies

On July 17, 1976, 73,000 gathered in the Olympic Stadium to take part in the Opening Ceremonies of the Montreal Olympics. The proceedings commenced with the arrival of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Philip and Prince Andrew and the IOC President, Lord Killanen and Commissioner of the Games Roger Rousseau. An estimated half billion watched on television. The ‘Parade of Athletes’ began moments later with the arrival of the Greek team, and concluded with the entry of the Canadian team.

All other teams entered the stadium according to French alphabetical order. The ceremony was marked by the adorning of Israel’s flag with a black mourning ribbon, in memory of the eleven athletes and officials killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich four years earlier. Four nations made their first Summer Olympic appearance in Montreal: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Cayman Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Her Majesty proclaimed the Games open, first in French, then in English. Accompanied by the Olympic Hymn, the Olympic Flag was carried into the stadium. As the flag was hoisted, an all-male choir performed a cappella version of the Olympic Hymn. Once the flag was unfurled, a troupe of Bavarian dancers representing Munich, host of the previous Summer Olympics, entered the stadium with the Antwerp flag. Following a brief dance, that flag was then passed from the Mayor of Munich to the IOC President and then to the Mayor of Montreal.

The Flag Bearers of each team then circled around the speaker’s dais as Pierre St-Jean recited the Athletes’ Oath and Maurice Forget recited the Judges’ Oath, with right hand over the heart and the Canadian flag clutched in the left. The 1976 Summer Olympics featured 196 events with 198 medal ceremonies in 21 sports. At Montreal, 32 new world records were set. Women’s events in basketball, rowing and team handball all made their Olympic debut. Hockey was played on an artificial pitch for the first time.


Nadia Comaneci, a Romanian gymnast thrilled the world at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal at the age of 14. She became the first woman to score a perfect 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event. She received seven perfect scores and won three gold medals for the uneven bars, balance beam and individual all-around and a bronze medal for her floor exercise. As part of the second-place Romanian national team, she won a silver as well. Comaneci, the uncontested queen of the Montreal Games, redefined both her sport and audiences’ expectations of female athletes.

Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto performed on a broken right knee, and helped the Japanese team win the gold medal for the team championship. Fujimoto broke his leg on the floor exercise and due to the closeness in the overall standings with the USSR, he hid the extent of the injury. With a broken knee, Fujimoto was able to complete his event on the rings, performing a perfect triple somersault dismount, maintaining perfect posture. He scored a 9.7 thus securing the gold for Japan.


At the Olympic Stadium, the crowd witnessed many noteworthy performances that included eight world records in men’s 400m hurdles, 800m, 3000m steeplechase, Javelin throw and decathlon as well as in women’s 400m, 800m and 4x400m relay. Miklos Nemeth of Hungary who won the javelin with a world record of 94.58 became the first son of an athletics gold medalist to win a gold of his own in athletics in the Olympic history. His father, Imre Nemeth won the Olympic gold in hammer throw at the London 1948 Olympics and he was also the world record holder in the event.

Finland’s Lasse Viren, became the first athlete to win gold medals in both 5,000m and 10,000m at consecutive Olympic Games: at Munich 1972 and at Montreal 1976. At age 19, Viren dropped out of school to train under Rolf Haikkola, who stressed the importance of endurance gained by running very long distances. At the 1972 Games, Viren fell during the 10,000m but scrambled quickly to his feet and running faster than ever, made up 50m lost to the leaders, held off a charge in the last lap to win the gold and set a world record of 27:38.4. He set an Olympic record when he won the 5,000m at Munich. He successfully defended both titles in Montreal and was placed fifth in the marathon.

In middle distance competition, Alberto Juantorena of Cuba became the first athlete to win both 400m and 800m at the same Olympics, establishing a new world record of 1:43.50 in 800m. Alberto, a member of the Cuban national basketball team, switched to track at the age of 20. Standing 1.88m tall with a powerful 2.75m stride, he became known as “El Caballo” (The Horse).

A year after his first 400m, he was unsuccessful in the 1972 Olympics. He then won all of his 400m competitions in both 1973 and 1974 before having two operations on his foot in 1975. By 1976, Alberto was healthy enough to run not only 400m in Montreal but also 800m, a distance he had begun running to build endurance following his injury. Unknown internationally at that distance, Alberto not only won Cuba’s first track gold medal but also set the world record of 1:43.5. He retired in the 1980s to become an international sports administrator.

At Montreal, 20-year Edwin Moses set a new world record clocking 47.64 in 400m hurdles, less than a year after taking up the event. He was also America’s only male individual track gold medalist. It is no exaggeration to say that the men’s 400m at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal saw the birth of a legend, as Edwin announced his arrival on the international stage in devastating fashion.

His parents were academics and he used public parks to practice and applied the precision and detail of his academic subject to the track. Crucially, he developed his trademark pattern of 13 strides between each hurdle, combining power, grace and rhythm in a way that no 400m runner had done before. At the US Olympic trials in early summer of 1976, he set a new national record of 48.30 to book his place in the team for Montreal.

He arrived at Olympic Stadium without great expectations but proceeded to run the only sub 50-second heat and then bettered his own US record as he cruised to victory in his semi-final. He went on to pulverize the field. He was among the quickest out of the blocks and then ground down the opposition on the back straight. As he entered the final bend and then the home straight he was 10 yards clear and he crossed the line in a new world record time of 47.63.

Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union won his third consecutive triple jump gold in Olympics. His major success came in 1968, when he won at the 1968 Summer Olympics, where on October 17, he set the world record twice: 17.23 and 17.39. On the same date four years later, Saneyev set a new world record with a leap of 17.44. He won golds at the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics.

Poland’s Irena Szewinska won gold in the women’s 400m with a new world record. The United States’ Bruce Jenner won the gold for decathlon, setting a world record of 8,634 points. The Soviet Union’s Tatyana Kazankina earned golds in 800m and 1,500m. In 800m final, the four fastest competitors shattered the world record. In men’s 3000m steeplechase, Sweden’s Anders Garderud established a new world record of 8:08.02.

Hasely Crawford won Trinidad and Tobago’s first Olympic gold medal clocking 10.6 in 100m. In the marathon, East German Waldemar Cierpinski set a new Olympic time. The 4x400m relay team of the East Germany established a new world record of 3:19.23. Alex Oakley, the Canadian race walker, became the oldest track and field athlete to compete at the Olympic Games. He was aged 50 and was taking part in his fifth Olympics.


At the Olympic pool in the men’s competition, the US dominated, winning 12 out of 13 events and significantly breaking 11 world records. John Naber won four gold medals with world records in 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, 4x200m freestyle relay and 4x100m medley relay and a silver medal. John Naber was the standout swimmer of Montreal 1976. Indeed, few athletes have had such a big impact on their events in such a short space of time as the dashing American.

He was born in Illinois and after a number of years travelling in England and Italy due to his father’s work commitments, the Naber family returned to the US, settling in the Bay area of San Francisco. He would later say that the happiest memories of his life were the time spent churning out the lengths at his local swimming club as a teenager in California. It was at the Montreal Games that the American made his most telling contribution on the global stage.

In winning the gold medal for the men’s 100m freestyle, Jim Montgomery became the first swimmer to break the 50 second mark in the event, taking first place in the final in a time of 49.99. The East German women’s swimming team won 11 out of 13 events with six world records. Swimmer Kornelia Ender won four gold medals with world records in 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 100m butterfly and 4x100m medley relay and a silver medal. Klaus Dibiasi of Italy won a third consecutive gold in the platform diving event.


Five US boxers – Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis Jr. won gold medals. This has been often called the greatest Olympic boxing team the US ever had. Heavyweight boxer Clarence Hill won a bronze for Bermuda and his accomplishment makes Bermuda the smallest nation in terms of population to win an Olympic medal at the Summer Olympics.

Other Feats

Princess Anne of the United Kingdom was the only female competitor not to be submitted to a sex test. She was a member of her country’s equestrian team.

Luann Ryon who had never before competed at the international level won the women’s Archery gold for the United States. For the first time ever, a woman won an Olympic medal in shooting. Margaret Murdock won the silver in the three positions event. Lanny Bassham and Murdock tied for the first place, but Murdock was placed second after review of the targets.

Bassham suggested that two gold medals be given and after this request was declined, asked Murdock to share the top step with him at the award ceremony. Women had no separate shooting events at the time and were allowed to compete with men. Another crowd favourite was powerful Russian weight lifter Vasily Alekseyev, who lifted more than 255 kgs in one competition (the clean and jerk). In his two competitions combined, he lifted 440 kgs - nearly half a ton. Pertti Karppinen of Finland won the first of his three career gold medals in rowing.

The New Zealand men’s national field hockey team beat Australia to win gold, becoming the first non-Asian or European team to win the gold medal in hockey. The Polish men’s volleyball team came back from being down two sets against the Soviet Union to win the gold. Women competed in basketball and rowing for the first time. The Japanese women’s volleyball team proved untouchable, winning all their matches in straight sets.

Final Medal Count

At the Games, the Soviet Union ranked top with 49 gold, 41 silver and 35 bronze medals. East Germany won 40G-25S-25B to take the second position, surpassing all expectations for a middle-sized nation. The United States won 34G-35S-25B to come third.

West Germany came fourth with 10G-12S-17B. Australia’s failure to win a gold medal led the country to create the Australian Institute of Sport. Ten Olympic Games have been staged since then and Canada continues to remain the only host nation of a Summer Olympics that failed to win at least one gold medal.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza and spotlight iconic athletes. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)