Canada's 'black eye' at the 1976 Montreal Olympics: Two major promises amid the two-Chinas dispute

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The grounds for the closing ceremony of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. They were without over 20 countries that were boycotting the international event for reasons outside of just sports. (Credit: CP Images)
The grounds for the closing ceremony of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. They were without over 20 countries that were boycotting the international event for reasons outside of just sports. (Credit: CP Images)

It was around 1975 when Richard Pound was preparing for the Olympic Games to be held in Montreal in the summer of 1976. As the secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), he was actively involved in the international event, but he says he didn’t expect to be visited by four to five diplomatic representatives of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In a nondescript fashion, they were there to convince him to not allow Taiwan to be part of the Montreal Games, says Pound. “You have the wrong office,” he said, almost instantly bringing an end to their conversation. For Pound, it was clear: this was not an Olympic or COC issue, but one for the Canadian government as they were caught between two promises.

As part of its standard proposal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1969, Canada as the host was expected to welcome all IOC recognized member countries to the 1976 Montreal Games.

Its diplomatic ties to the PRC — which started in 1970 — also forced Canada to not recognize Taiwan as the “Republic of China.” It was then Taiwan’s preferred and recognized name to the dismay of the PRC, as both parties wanted to be viewed as the one and only China amid their Civil War aftermath.

The problem wouldn’t be solved in Pound’s office, but instead would unravel on centre stage days before the 1976 Olympics were to begin, with Taiwanese athletes not being permitted into Canada, or to compete, using the “Republic of China” name.

For Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Canadian government, they were met with criticism from their own Olympic committee and the IOC, who talked of cancelling the games. The U.S. considered boycotting, as presidential candidates in an election year lambasted Canada for playing politics with sports — especially with one of its allies involved. 

Back home, newspapers like the Ottawa Citizen called out the “shame and almost universal condemnation for Canada.” It was just another example of how politics interfered with sports, amid the belief that they shouldn't. But this time, Canada was putting itself in the position of becoming the first host nation to refuse entry to a recognized National Olympic Committee.

“Canada got a black eye through this scandal,” says Guoqi Xu, the author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports. “Canada was seen as the bad guy violating the rules.”

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau watches Olympic wrestling, while his sons Alexandre, age 2, (C), and Justin, age 4, seem content to watch the crowd at the 1976 Olympics. (Credit: CP Photo)
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau watches Olympic wrestling, while his sons Alexandre, age 2, (C), and Justin, age 4, seem content to watch the crowd at the 1976 Olympics. (Credit: CP Photo)

Decades of rising tensions and 'incompetence' 

Canada not accepting the “Republic of China” into the 1976 Montreal Games captivated the world days before the Olympics, which started July 17. The ordeal however brewed for years, as Canada and the IOC waited for each other to solve the problem, says Xu. The more it dragged on, the more favourable it was for Canada, since the IOC wouldn’t be able to relocate or cancel the Olympics, considering all of the allocated resources.

“Canada was doomed. They made two promises that were unbreachable,” says Xu. “Canada basically gave up hope that it’d be able to change the problem … The IOC dragged its feet.”

The PRC ultimately didn’t want Canada to allow Taiwan to participate at all. But Canada’s stance was that it wouldn’t allow Taiwan to use its flag, anthem or the name “Republic of China” (or any other “China” reference), since by doing so it indicated that it represented the sole-legal government of China.

IOC’s then president Lord Killanin, who “deplored” the “last minute” nature of the situation, says Canada gave no indication until late-May 1976 (less than two months before the opening ceremony) that it wouldn’t accept the ROC under its current representation. The news broke out internationally shortly after, as Canada officially let Taiwan know of its decision in early June.

International Olympic Committee president Lord Killanin seen with Queen Elizabeth II at the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal, Canada. (Credit: Werner Baum/Getty Images)
International Olympic Committee president Lord Killanin seen with Queen Elizabeth II at the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal, Canada. (Credit: Werner Baum/Getty Images)

While there was a standard protocol and rules, Canada in 1969 added a provision to its letter of intent saying that it’d accept all IOC member countries to participate, but “pursuant to the normal regulations.” The IOC didn’t question the clause, and awarded Montreal the games in May 1970. Five months later, Canada became one of the first western countries to form diplomatic ties with the PRC.

“The Canadian government was offside. Taiwan played it by the book. The PRC was playing politics … the IOC rule basically made the Canadian position full of sh—,” says Pound, noting that Canada added the provision before its PRC diplomatic ties began.

According to internal memos by Canada’s External Affairs, obtained by Xu, Canada and the IOC finally spoke in 1975 about what “normal regulations” meant. Canada ultimately didn’t assure the IOC that it’d accept the ROC, but Lord Killanin later denied hearing any such thing.

Canada was doomed. They made two promises that were unbreachableGuoqi Xu

Before the memos, Canada’s External Affairs in 1974 recommended that it try helping the PRC rejoin the IOC, making the two-Chinas dispute the IOC’s problem, while helping them avoid an “important and potentially embarrassing issue.” The request, however, didn’t pass in time for the 1976 Games. Pound, who’s the longest serving member of the IOC, says raising such controversial problems even by 1974 is far too late.

Two years into the organizational period, the IOC and host nation are married to the idea, since it’d be too late to relocate such a massive event, says Pound. Perhaps they could return to the previous host nation, but in this case it’d be Munich, where in 1972 eleven members of Israel’s Olympic team were killed, discouraging anyone from returning.

Pound says to him it became apparent there’d be major problems when in November 1975, Canada wouldn’t allow Taiwan to compete in Montreal for a boxing event under the name “Republic of China.”

Prime Minister Trudeau holds the Olympic flame during a ceremony on Parliament Hill when the Olympic flame was lit on July 15, 1976.(Credit: Getty Images)
Prime Minister Trudeau holds the Olympic flame during a ceremony on Parliament Hill when the Olympic flame was lit on July 15, 1976.(Credit: Getty Images)

For Xu, he says the Montreal situation was foreseeable since 1958, but the fact it wasn’t resolved was in part due to the IOC’s “incompetence,” as it pushed aside political implications.

The Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949, resulted in the communist PRC taking hold of mainland China from the Nationalists (ROC). The ROC, which was the official government associated with the Chinese Olympic Committee, relocated to the island of Taiwan. With both parties holding onto the namesake “China,” it created the “two-Chinas problem.” As a result in 1958, the PRC withdrew from the IOC in protest.

Despite the withdrawal, Soviet Union pressure on the IOC generated continued discontent. Under the circumstances in 1960 at the Rome Olympics, the ROC had to call themselves “Formosa,” the common name for its island among Westerners. In retaliation, they marched at the opening ceremony behind a placard that read “Under Protest”.

More favourable solutions were reached in future Olympics, many involving the use of its IOC recognized name “the Republic of China.” It wasn’t until Canada had to honour its ties to the PRC that problems resurfaced in such dramatic fashion.

'Trudeau was kind of a sinophile': Canada’s relationship with the PRC

To this day, in order to partake in a diplomatic relationship with the PRC, a country has to recognize there is only one sole-legal government of China. It was an agreement that Trudeau understood when establishing diplomatic ties with the PRC in 1970, as part of his new foreign policy, which in turn cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

It was a move that helped Canada establish its own international profile, since it was always “just regarded as a me-too to America,” says Pound. The U.S. wouldn’t establish diplomatic ties with the PRC until 1979.

For Trudeau, he first visited the PRC in 1949 amid the revolution. In 1960, when visitors were still rare, he returned alongside his friend Jacques Hébert and wrote a book. He was fond of their culture and also realized that he was witnessing an “industrial revolution.”

“Trudeau was kind of a sinophile. ... he fell in love with China,” said Pound. “So if you wanted to know where his heart was.”

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enjoys a banquet hosted by Premier Chou En-Lai at the Great Hall of the People, during his PRC visit in 1973. (Credit: Peter Bregg/CP Photo)
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enjoys a banquet hosted by Premier Chou En-Lai at the Great Hall of the People, during his PRC visit in 1973. (Credit: Peter Bregg/CP Photo)

Trudeau and the Canadian government weren’t going to allow their Olympic obligation stand in the way of their newfound diplomatic relationship, especially considering the economic impact that was potentially at stake.

According to The Wall Street Journal, in 1975, “Canada posted a $144 million trade deficit with Taiwan and a $320 million trade surplus with Peking; had the situation been reversed, it’s likely Taiwan would still be participating in the Olympic Games as the Republic of China.” In wheat alone, Canada also had $307 million in sales to mainland China in 1975, according to The New York Times.

Backlash from the U.S. before an ultimate 'compromise'

The decision to develop close PRC ties had some Canadians calling Trudeau a “Communist,” in an era in which the U.S. was amid its Cold War. While it didn’t have a major impact in that sphere, the U.S. was concerned with seeing the rise of another superpower in the PRC, which as the world’s largest population was gaining momentum behind its Canadian relationship.

The year 1976 was also an important time in American history, being both a presidential year and the 200th anniversary of U.S. independence. The topic became a popular talking point for presidential candidates. Jimmy Carter said Canada was playing politics with the Olympics, while the controversy was also used by then president Gerald Ford to help strengthen his base.

“The games have now been totally corrupted by a politicization that reduces this international sports contest to a mocking of the Olympic Ideal and to a mere sideshow in the ideological wars,” said Ford. In a meeting with top advisers, Ford went as far to say “that Trudeau is being a real bastard.”

Caitlyn Jenner, of the United States, throws the javelin during the decathlon competition at the Olympics in Montreal, as part of a gold-medal performance. (AP Photo/File)
Caitlyn Jenner, of the United States, throws the javelin during the decathlon competition at the Olympics in Montreal, as part of an iconic gold-medal performance. (AP Photo/File)

The U.S. at the time held diplomatic ties with Taiwan. For the Americans, there was also the worry that Canada’s decision would set a precedent, just before the next Summer Olympics that would be held in Moscow — the first time a communist bloc would host.

As a result, the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened they might not send its athletes if the IOC were to remove the term “Olympics” from the Montreal Games, which would make it an unofficial event.

Pound says he advised the IOC — barely a week before the Olympics when he was summoned by Lord Killanin — to follow that move. Pound viewed it as a way to force Trudeau to fall to the IOC’s demands, since he couldn’t afford at that point to lose the Olympics, considering the resources that they had put into Montreal. It would also provide a reasonable excuse for Canada to present to the PRC.

The IOC didn’t move forward with the recommendation. With the U.S. team withdrawing from the Olympics, it would have major consequences, especially with the millions of dollars invested in TV rights.

The games have now been totally corrupted by a politicization that reduces this international sports contest to a mocking of the Olympic Ideal and to a mere sideshow in the ideological warsGerald Ford

As the situation unfolded days before the Olympics, Taiwanese athletes were waiting in the U.S. to enter Canada. Trudeau had denied visas to the ROC team, but throughout the debacle, the PM learned that about 11 Taiwanese Olympic members had managed to enter Canada, such as by using their dual U.S. passports. Canada contemplated deportation as a means, while some of the Taiwanese members indicated they would march in the opening ceremony unless they were "forcibly" restrained. 

Trudeau’s initial offer was that Taiwan could compete at the Olympics, but they couldn’t use its flag, anthem or the name “Republic of China.” The fact that there was already the precedent of the 1960 Rome Olympic Games also worked in his favour.

To appeal to the IOC and the U.S., Trudeau decided to revise the offer on July 15, two days before the Olympics; Taiwan could use whatever flag and anthem they wanted, but couldn’t represent itself as the “Republic of China” or use “China” in its name.

The IOC and the U.S. viewed it as a “compromise” and accepted the conditions. Taiwan instead pulled out of the Montreal Olympics on July 16, a day before they were to begin.

“The IOC had to eat its humble pie. … The [PRC] got what it wanted, for them it was a victory,” said Pound.

U.S. President Gerald Ford speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during the NATO 1975 summit in Brussels. (Credit: AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. President Gerald Ford speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during the NATO 1975 summit in Brussels. (Credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Politics and sports: Forever intertwined

Canada was in no means the first country to intersect politics with sports, as the 1976 Montreal Games were already filled with controversy. More than 20 countries boycotted the games because of New Zealand’s participation, after its rugby team toured apartheid-era South Africa in 1976.

Countries would continue to boycott, even as soon as the next Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, as ironically the U.S., Canada and at least 60 other nations didn’t participate after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

For the PRC, the Olympics had already been a place to send a message. They were encouraged to join by the Soviet Union as a way to prove their political legitimacy, says Xu, noting it was also a way to show the world of one’s superiority. 

In 1949, Canada’s secretary for external affairs said “international sport is the means of attaining triumphs over another nation,” as he emphasized it as a future focus. Decades later, Trudeau followed a similar messaging when strengthening Canada’s bonds with the Soviet Union with hockey through the Summit Series in 1972. The Chinese and Americans held similar ties through table tennis.

For the IOC, at its core, it's an international organization with no territory, but it consists of National Olympic Committees that rely so heavily on governments. Without their lead, the national committees would have nowhere to turn for matters such as funding for sports programs and facilities.

Pound says that moving forward from the 1976 Olympics, “the Canadian reputation suffered a lot from this” among the IOC and other national committees. “It was embarrassing to us that our government was breaching a pretty clear commitment to the IOC. It was concerning that Canada welched a promise.”

The Montreal fiasco with Taiwan showed that a host nation could manipulate the rules. It was a tough reputation that Canada ultimately broke away from when it secured the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, but it wasn’t easy, says Pound.

The two-Chinas dispute from an IOC standpoint became a bigger focus as more countries started to establish diplomatic ties with the PRC, including the U.S. in 1979. That same year, the IOC voted the PRC back into the Olympic movement under the name "Chinese Olympic Committee," while allowing them to use its PRC anthem and flag. The IOC also voted for the ROC to change its name to the "Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee,” while selecting a new Olympic flag and anthem. 

As a result, Taiwan protested the following two Olympic Games — Lake Placid and Moscow, both in 1980 — until agreeing to terms in 1981.

Queen Elizabeth ll, Prince Andrew (left) and Lord Killanin attend the opening ceremony of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics on July 17, 1976 in Montreal, Canada. (Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth ll, Prince Andrew (left) and Lord Killanin attend the opening ceremony of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics on July 17, 1976 in Montreal, Canada. (Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Simon Sung, a public affairs director for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada, says Taiwan’s stance has become more flexible, knowing it’s needed to participate in international affairs. With the PRC becoming a force by controlling the mainland, it was hard for Taiwan to maintain it was the “one-China” with just an island — one the PRC still considers to be its province. 

Looking back, Sung says Canada’s 1976 decision was understandable given its PRC relationship, but it wasn’t acceptable to Taiwan as it fought for legitimacy.

On the day-to-day, the ROC has become comfortable with the name “Taiwan,” especially since the Democratic Progressive Party took power in 2000, starting a shift for independence by distancing itself from the PRC. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Canada and Taiwan also set up representative offices in each other’s countries for trade and other functions in the absence of diplomatic relations.

“The PRC hasn’t lived up to everybody’s expectations… it’s difficult to think where they’re going,” says Sung, noting the world is becoming more accepting of Taiwan on the international stage as a result.

Canada’s and the PRC’s external affairs offices did not respond in time for comment, while the IOC couldn’t facilitate interviews with the PRC’s and Taiwan’s Olympic committees.

For the PRC, attention has turned to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, as various organizations protest their ability to host the games, citing their involvement in unethical human-rights practices.

Pound says that the IOC picked the PRC to host the games simply because of Beijing’s ability to host such a complex and massive sporting event. “It doesn’t mean that we're endorsing any position of the People's Republic of China,” he says.

The long-term inability to host would become the Montreal Games’ lasting reputation, as the city wouldn’t pay off its $1.5 billion debt until 2006. For Xu, the “Montreal Games are a fascinating case study,” as the world’s attention was brought toward seeing how influential the PRC could become. It all came behind the support from another influential power in Canada that caught widespread outrage behind its two promises.

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