What Happens to Olympic Host Cities After the Games?

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Athens Olympic Sports Complex (OAKA), Athens. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

As London prepares to host the 2012 Olympics, there's been no shortage of stories on the condition of the buildings erected for the 2004 Games in Athens. The Olympic sports complex is rotting and rusting, the man-made lake set up to provide water to the slalom course is dry, and the stadiums built for table tennis and gymnastics are empty. The situation is easy to amplify in a negative way given the economic situation in Greece. Many blame the country's debt, or at least part of it, on a rush to build extravagant facilities for the Olympics. While some have pointed out that Greece's travel infrastructure was significantly upgraded because of the 2004 Games, Athens has mostly been cast in a negative light. Is that fair? How have other former Olympic stadiums fared? What exactly happens to host cities after the Olympics?

Faliro Olympic Complex, Athens. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

Photographers Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit have set out to answer that last question. So far they have picked seven former host cities to visit so they can interview people and photograph anything and everything related to the Olympics. Their answer will take the form of a 200-page photo book, The Olympic City, due out in March 2013. The duo started a Kickstarter project so they can raise money to travel to seven more cities and finish the project. Those people that donate will get to help pick the last two cities that Pack and Hustwit visit. We emailed Pack to see what they've discovered so far.

Art Devlin's Olympic Motor Inn, Lake Placid, New York. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

In the Kickstarter video, you mention that seeing the money spent on the Beijing Olympics in 2008 inquired you to wonder what happens to these cities. Why did you decide to turn that question into a huge project?
 Well, I wasn’t sure at first if it would turn into a project at all. To be honest, I never had much interest in the Olympics. My wife, on the other hand, is a big fan and has been since she was little. She has really happy memories of writing to invite Brian Boitano to dinner in a fan letter when she was 11. (He never responded.) So leading up to the 2008 Olympics, I found myself paying more attention than I had to Games in the past. I was intrigued that so much of the coverage was about the money being spent and the venues being constructed for an event that would only last a few weeks. I kept wondering what would become of these buildings after the Games, so I went on a bit of a fact-finding mission and did some research. Then I rented a car and kept it local, mostly because of money and time constraints, and drove up to Lake Placid and Montreal.

In Lake Placid, I stayed at Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn, a hotel opened by a former Olympic ski jumper. The hotel lobby was jam-packed with his trophies and awards. A handful of dusty shops on the village’s main street are filled with all sorts of memorabilia from the 1980 Games—the shops appear to be closed most of the time, but handwritten signs let interested folks know how to get ahold of the owners. The former Olympic Village where the athletes were housed is now a prison—well, it was a prison first, then a place to house the athletes, and then a prison again.  Not only that, but the prisoners helped build the ski jumps used in the Games. So that trip really invigorated me, and definitely made me feel like this could be a project worth exploring.

I saw on the site that you’re photographing L.A., Montreal, Lake Placid, Athens, Rome, Mexico City, and Sarejevo. How are you picking the cities?
 As I mentioned at first I was really just sticking close to home and driving to a few places to see if I felt like there was a project in the idea. Then when Gary joined the project, we talked about where to go next, and based on some of my research and our conversations about what we were looking to find, we both agreed that Athens and Mexico City were musts, since so much had changed in both places since the Games left. But beyond that, we wanted to hear from people who are following the project about where we should go. One of the great things about launching a Kickstarter campaign is all the feedback that we’ve gotten. Those tips and ideas, along with our own research, absolutely inform our choices when it comes to where we’ll decide to go. And for two of the cities, we’re leaving those decisions entirely in the hands of our Kickstarter backers.

Athens Olympic Sports Complex (OAKA), Athens. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

Did you have a preconceived notion going in of the effects hosting the Olympics would have on a city?
No, I definitely didn’t go into this thinking that I had a good idea of what I’d be looking at. I really was mostly just interested in seeing what remained—and that could be something positive or something negative. I’ve had people tell me that the Games were a terrible thing to happen to their city, and I’ve had people tell me the exact opposite. It really depends on whom you talk to. And keep in mind that for every abandoned volleyball stadium or empty swimming pool, there’s a venue that’s been repurposed as a church or a theater. This project is very much about both; I want to explore and document both the good and the bad.

The Olympic Stadium Spiros Louis, Athens. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City<

How are you picking what to photograph?
It’s a tough question to answer because, as a photographer, I tend to take pictures of what feels right, and that’s still a big part of my process. But for this project, I will say we’re as interested in capturing images of the old structures, either what’s left or what they’ve become, and anything else that reflects the lasting impression the Games may have left, including the cities themselves and, of course, their inhabitants. I met and photographed some people in Athens and in Lake Placid who were really proud of their involvement in the Olympics, and that was one of the best parts of my trip, so I’d love to try to make those connections as often as I can.

Grand Olympic Auditorium (now Glory Church of Jesus Christ), Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

What has surprised you the most so far?
Since I wasn’t a huge fan of the Games before taking this on, it’s been really interesting to find that so many people are like my wife—absolutely passionate about the Olympics, and for so many different reasons. There’s a great sense of national pride that comes with the Games, particularly for the host cities, and it really can unify a lot of different cultures for those brief few weeks. On the flip side, there are people who feel the Games have become an overblown spectacle, one that does more harm than good. But like I said, the opinions are much more passionate than I was anticipating.

The remains of a 1984 Olympics mural, Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

What is the biggest negative trend you’ve seen so far in these cities?
There really hasn’t been an overarching trend, and that’s part of what I think will keep this project so interesting. If every host city allowed the Games to wreak havoc on their landscapes and their architecture, I think there would be less to photograph, in a way. Sure, there’s quite a bit of abandoned space in Athens, but there is also a beautiful subway and a lovely theater in a repurposed badminton stadium. It’s that mix of trends that I’m hoping for.

Olympic Ski Jumping Complex, Lake Placid, New York. Photo: Courtesy of The Olympic City

What do you hope the end result of this book will be?
We want it to be beautiful, and representative of our work as photographers and collaborators, both Gary and I, and our designer, the great Paul Sahre. He is going to do an amazing job of creating the best package to house these photos. We also want the impact of the Games to really come through in these photos, to give the reader a sense of the impression they’ve left on these very different cities.

For more, check out The Olympic City on Kickstarter.

—Joe Spring

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