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Sochi’s Bleak Future: What happens to Olympic Cities After the Olympics Are Over?

A look back at former Olympic hosts reveals why the Russian city could be in deep trouble.
 
 
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For a city, there’s nothing quite like the glory of winning an Olympic bid. The highly competitive process starts nine years before the games and involves untold amounts of campaigning and planning. Once selected, fortunate cities have seven years to prepare, updating their infrastructure and building new, impressive facilities. If they pull it off, they get two weeks to show it all off to the entire world.

Then the Games end, and the world moves on. No longer hosts, but forever Olympic cities, those left behind must figure out what to do next. Theoretically, this is something they should have been planning for all along, but as Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit have discovered, that isn’t always the case. Intrigued by the high price tag on the Beijing Olympics — before Sochi, $41 billion sounded like a lot of money — the two began returning to the former Olympic sites, photographing the post-games buildings and people they encountered in Athens, Barcelona, Beijing, Berlin, Helsinki, Mexico City, Moscow, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, Lake Placid, Rome and Sarajevo.

The results of their their ongoing exploration, called  The Olympic City Project, are dispiriting. While they found that some cities continue to thrive, others, like Athens, ended up as ghost towns. Others still became scenes of tragedy: The same spot where the 1984 Winter Games were held, for example, would later become the site of over 10,000 deaths during the Siege of Sarajevo less than a decade later.

So what’s next for Sochi? Russia poured $51 billion into revamping the beach town into a world-class ski resort, dwarfing previous games in both cost and scale — although at a terrible environmental price. The casualties of those efforts include rampant water pollution,  thousands of displaced residents and an entire ecosystem arguably destroyed. In about five years, Pack and Hustwit said, they plan to go and see what happens for themselves — but they aren’t very optimistic about its prospects.

Read on for a conversation with Pack and Hustwit about the future of Olympic cities, and view a selection of their photographs from around the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Earlier you told me, “You’d think cities would learn [from] the mistakes of the past, but instead it seems like they keep remaking them.” What are some examples of the mistakes that you’ve seen?

Gary Hustwit: Everything in Athens is probably a good example. Any time when there really isn’t a need for these facilities in these cities, but they get built anyway for the games, everybody has kind of wishful thinking about what the afterlife of these spaces is going to be. If there is not demand for it before the Olympics, there’s probably not going to be demand for it afterwards. So unless it’s a government like China or Russia that can just pump money into these places to keep them going, when there isn’t really a need for them you end up with something like Athens, where there are 20 of these beautiful, amazing venues that were built that just have chain-link fences around them and are covered in graffiti and haven’t been used in 10 years.

Jon Pack: It could cost tens of millions of dollars just to maintain them. You definitely can’t do that in Athens.

GH:  As Jon discovered, the best job in Athens is becoming a security guard in one of these 20 unused venues. There’s nothing really happening there.

And when people do find different uses for the city it can end up being almost ironic. I’m torn between Lake Placid (where the Olympic Village was converted into a prison) and what happened in Sarajevo as being the most unexpected use of space that you captured.

 
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