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What happens to cities after the Olympics are gone?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This blog appears in the In-Depth Report Science at the Sochi Olympics

As the Sochi Winter Olympic Games get underway, I’m reminded of a project by documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit and photographer Jon Pack called The Olympic City. You might be familiar with Hustwit’s work. He produced the awesomely nerdy design trilogy featuring Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized. These films looked at how design influences everyday life, from print on the page to how cities are designed.  The Olympic City extends the theme of how design and infrastructure impact factors into the legacy of Olympic host cities.

Their question, and mine as well, is: what happens to a host city after the Olympics?

In their book, Hustwit and Pack document the successes and failures of being an Olympic host city. Some of the grandest world stages are left to decay, in some cases repurposed as dormitories or correctional facilities. Olympic Villages have simply become housing units in Moscow, while Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Games with its futuristic for the time facilities, bears scars of its civil war in 1992.

Children play football in the abandonded ski jump in Sarajevo. Credit: The Olympic City Project

Jesse Robinson Olympic Park in Los Angeles, CA. Credit: The Olympic City Project

But the Olympic games can also have a lasting improvements for residents. London, in preparation for the Summer 2012 Games, beefed up its transportation system to handle Olympic tourists and making it more friendly for out-of-towners (like myself). While I was visiting London last year, I was consistently impressed by the City’s abundant signage. I would find myself wondering “how far am I from XYZ?” and literally within a matter of seconds I would come across a sign in the sidewalk describing my location and providing a handy map of locations within minutes of walking. It’s something more cities should implement (ahem, Paris, I’m looking at you!).

And consider the improvements made to the City’s underground system. Dating back to the 1860s, the tube network is complex and England spent $10 million expanding the system to handle an additional 3 million journeys a day (up from 12 million). Were the Olympics necessary for these improvements? Not necessarily, but from my experience Londoners and its visitors are still benefiting.

As for Sochi, the progress, or lack thereof, has been fodder for jokes on the Internet about double toilets or Mad Maxx style bartering for door handles. An unknown portion of that $50 billion is also going to individuals and such to grease the rails, so some smaller amount of money is actually going in to improving Sochi. But improvements such as roads, rail lines, and even a new power plant should (in theory) benefit residents after the Games conclude.

It’s too early to tell what will become of the stadiums and arenas and infrastructure investments. The Russian government has spent an enormous amount of money on the winter games, something like $50 billion dollars in hopes that Sochi will become a popular ski destination: the Aspen of the Caucasus.

That’s why for me, a project like The Olympic City is so interesting. As Hustwit and Pack write, “We’re interested in these disparate ideas — decay and rebirth — and how each site seems to have gone one way or the other, either by choice or circumstance.” It’s a look at how the promise of the Olympic Games is either fulfilled or broken once the torch goes out.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. tuned 11:04 am 02/11/2014

    What’s left is a mountain of unnecessary pollution.

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  2. 2. vertland@aol.com 2:37 pm 02/11/2014

    Currently in Brazil the government is spending absurd money for the World Cup and 2016 Olympics while the poor locals are left to rot. No Olympics should be granted to any country with a Gini Coefficient higher than 30. Or better yet, preeminent sites should be found for the Olympics, say Athens for the Summer games considering the Olympics were invented there.

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  3. 3. bayne63 3:49 pm 02/11/2014

    Sarajevo hosted the ’84 Winter Games. The Summer Games were in L.A.

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  4. 4. davidwogan 4:01 pm 02/11/2014

    That would explain the ski jump. Updated – thanks.

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  5. 5. dasebold 5:30 pm 02/11/2014

    Hello. I am a sophomore at West Virginia University. I am enrolled in a Physics 101 course that requires us to comment on a scientific blog post that attracts our attention. The above article reminded me a lot of the book “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman. I read this book during my junior year of high school for AP Environmental Science. This book traveled around the world, depicting how landscapes and hardscapes would change. The infrastructure we have built would drastically change if we were no longer here to maintain them. The book covered different intervals of time, varying from approximately ten years to hundreds of years.
    How the Olympic venues and villages go unused and forgotten, reminded me about this book. Without proper maintenance, nature takes over. Steel rusts, glass shatters, over the course of a few decades these structures will no longer be recognizable. Instead the host countries should reuse these buildings and locations so that they benefit the citizens and nationals of the city. Perhaps they could somehow defer the cost of constructing these structures and the cost of hosting the Olympics. This could be accomplished by using them for a purpose other than just the Olympics.

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  6. 6. zootsuitriot 7:59 pm 02/11/2014

    @dasebold – Honestly…. your physics professor is making you post on the internet for an assignment? Whatever happened to solving actual physics problems that deal with y’know… mathematics? Newtons laws? Sheesh. Essays are what all those required language and humanities courses are for. Sounds like your professor got hired for a position in the wrong department! I’m sorry, hope your semester goes alright and that you actually end up learning physics this semester instead of liberal arts bs. Good luck.

    Unrelated to the material above, but related to the article itself; Sometimes it takes a few mistakes for people to start making changes. London’s Olympics preparations were very recent. The planners tried to take history into account, especially the fact that a gigantic stadium wouldn’t be necessary after the games. They even went so far as to recycle/re-purpose parts of it after the fact. It’s easy to call out the earlier cities, but it might have been different if the earlier cities had a bunch of mistakes to look at just as the planners for the London Olympics did.

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  7. 7. Trulahn 1:22 am 02/12/2014

    The one in Munich is still there. It’s open to public. The swimming pool is now a public pool (there might be a fee, I didn’t go inside). The stadium area has a zip-line business which you can pay to zip across to drop down to the middle of the stadium.

    Not all Olympic Parks have to die.

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