Olympic City

Gary Hustwit and Jon Pack have been photographing former Olympic sites around the world.

What happens to a city after the Olympics are gone?

That's the question two photographers are seeking answers to as they embark on their ongoing project, The Olympic City. Documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit (Urbanized, Helvetica, Objectified) and Jon Pack have traveled to over a dozen former host cities so far, with the results set to appear in book form later this month.

Pack and Hustwit raised money for the project through Kickstarter and traveled to each city separately, communicating via each other's images. What they've found so far is a mixed legacy for hosting the games. Some cities have used their Olympic infrastructure in ways that have made the city better off (Barcelona) while many others still struggle to find new uses long after the games have concluded (Athens). 

We chatted with Hustwit and Pack over email to get a preview of what they've learned so far.
What led to the creation of this project?

Jon Pack: During the 2008 Beijing Olympics I kept hearing about two things: Michael Phelps and how much money China spent on all the venues. I couldn’t remember another Olympics where the cost of the event was so widely discussed. It made me start to wonder about what would happen after the games were over, and that in turn made me curious about other Olympic host cities. Did the games have a lasting effect? What ghosts remained? So I decided to grab my camera and take a trip to the two Olympic host cities closest to me, Montreal and Lake Placid.

I wanted to get a preliminary sense of what these cities looked like after the Games had long ended and to see if there might be something interesting to document. In Montreal, the shadow of the Games was larger, in the form of the Olympic Stadium and Tower, which looms over the city. In Lake Placid the reminders were smaller – dusty souvenirs in otherwise empty shop windows, and the Olympic rings hanging outside the inn where I stayed. I was really intrigued by this disparity: the idea that the Olympics affects its host cities in ways both impossible to ignore and in quieter, more insidious ways.

Gary Hustwit: I’ve known Jon for about 15 years, and in 2009 when I was making my documentary Urbanized, which was about the design of cities, he showed me his early images of Montreal and Lake Placid, and I was really amazed by them. I’d been trying to do more still photography work, and was completely city obsessed when I was making that film, so I convinced Jon to let me collaborate on the project. We also felt that as two photographers we could cover more ground and document more cities.

"Art Devlin's Olympic Motor Inn, Lake Placid"

"Adirondak Correctional Facility, Lake Placid" 

"Montreal Tower and Olympic Stadium, Montreal"

Which cities seem to have honored their Olympic legacy the best in terms of how leftover infrastructure has been used since the games ended?

JP: I was really impressed with how seamlessly Barcelona has woven the former sites into the city. People use the Olympic Port, the beach that was created has remained and is very popular. I was also impressed with places like Rome, Montreal and Helsinki, where housing for the athletes was turned into apartments that are still being used today. I met a ninety-year-old man in Montreal who moved into the former Olympic Village as soon as it became residential and has lived there happily ever since.

GH: Mexico City was one that stood out for me. The city’s population has tripled since 1968, to over 21 million, and its form has radically changed. But almost every single venue that was built for the Games is still being used for its original purpose. They’ve maintained the stadiums, the swimming facilities, the Olympic Village, and all these structures are being used daily by the general public. Moscow, which hosted the boycotted 1980 Games, also does surprisingly well on this.

"Montujic High Dive, Barcelona"

"Cinema at the 1968 Olympic Village, Mexico City"

"Palacio De Los Deportes, Mexico City"

What was the most disheartening former Olympic site?

JP: Athens was difficult to see in a few different ways. They’ve been through so much in the past few years because of their economy, and there’s a sort of pervasive depression that I think made visiting their vast, often empty former Olympic sites feel even more bleak. They are also heavily guarded, I was told to keep people from seeing how many sites have fallen into disrepair. That kind of national shame is tremendously heartbreaking.

The most encouraging, on the other hand, was Sarajevo. Of course that is a city with its own history of heartbreak, and the legacy of the Olympics is inextricably wrapped up in that of the Bosnian war. I was expecting to discover a similar level of desertion and disrepair in Sarajevo. The Igman ski jumps bear all the signs of war along with the hand drawn skull and cross bone signs warning of active land mines. But, the day I arrived, campers were having the time of their lives at the bottom of the hill. They were playing football and competing in a series of challenges they called, “Games Without Borders.” I saw this again at our other stops in Sarajevo – Olympic sites, ravaged by war, being reclaimed and used by regular folks.

Agios Kosmas Olympic Sailing Center, Athens

"Athens Olympic Sports Complex (OAKA), Athens"

"Igman Olympic Ski Jumps, Sarajevo"

How do locals tend to view the legacy of the Olympics their city hosted? How is that reflected in the things they say about it and how they use the infrastructure from those games?

JP: I think one of the things I found most surprising was how opinionated the people who live in these cities are about the games. It made sense in a place like London, where they had just ended, but even in cities like Rome, where the games took place 53 years ago, or Helsinki, who hosted them in 1952, I found over and over again that people wanted to tell their story about the games. Sometimes it was positive – a family member worked during them and had a great experience, or sometimes it was negative – shop owners who were pushed out due to increased rents as a result of the games – but everyone had a story to tell. That was what I really wanted to get out of this project, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to all these people and to hopefully represent some of their stories in the images and in the book. 

"1980 Olympic Village, Moscow"

"Olympic Village, Rome"

There seems to more skepticism than ever about the financial and infrastructural benefits of hosting an Olympics. Did you have an opinion on the matter going into the project and did it change afterwards?

GH: I don’t think either of us had a set opinion about it, we’ve been driven more by curiosity, wanting to explore and document these places. Also the project isn’t over, we’re going to continue photographing more cities in the upcoming years. But I don’t think you can pronounce the Olympics as always good or bad for every city, it really depends on the individual city and if they actually need the type of infrastructure that hosting an Olympics demands.

It comes down to this: what’s the rationale for hosting this event? The reasons have got to be more than just making a few quick tourism dollars or showing your city off to the world. If a city needs this kind of development, if it’s in sync with the city’s natural growth, then the Olympics can be a good thing. But so often cities haven’t taken into account the long-term benefit of their citizens when they’re putting together their Olympic bid. 

"Olimpic, Sarajevo" 
Olympic Stadium, Helsinki"


"Grzegorz Kowalski's "Reloj Solar'"

"Jesse Robinson Olympic Park, Los Angeles"

"Olympic Radiator, Los Angeles"

Laoshan Velodrome, Beijing

"Found Photo, Olympic Green, Beijing" 

"1936 Olympic Village, Berlin"

"Ben's Narrow Boat, London"

The Olympic City book is currently available for pre-order. The project is currently on exhibit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will be shown at PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn from June 21 to July 10.

Top image: "Mascot pile-up, Beijing" from The Olympic City


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