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What happens to cities after the Olympic are gone?


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.

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

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