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Tragic Time Capsules: Capturing the Decay of Forgotten Olympic Venues

Cities spend billions getting themselves all dolled up for the big dance. But what happens to all those old prom dresses?

In a new project called "The Olympic City," photographer Jon Pack and filmmaker Gary Hustwit are taking a close look at what the Olympic Games leave behind. Cities spend billions getting themselves all dolled up for the big dance. But what happens to all those old prom dresses? Some of the grand structures built for the Olympics have had second lives as malls, churches, even prisons; others have fallen into desuetude. Pack and Hustwit bring a healthy skepticism to their project, questioning the real, lasting benefit of the Games for host cities. Their Kickstarter- funded project will produce a limited edition hard cover book and a digital edition documenting their trips to former Olympic sites in Los Angeles, Montreal, Lake Placid, Athens, Rome, and Mexico City, with several others to be added this summer and fall.

GOOD: What sparked the idea for this project?

JON PACK: I found myself thinking about old Olympic host cities a lot during the 2008 Beijing games. It was intriguing to me that so much of the coverage in the weeks leading up to those Games focused more on how much money the city was spending than anything else. They were the first Olympics where I knew more about the stadiums and how many fireworks would be used in the opening ceremonies than I did about who was favored in women’s gymnastics. It made me first wonder what would have happened if my home city of New York had won its bid for the Games instead of London. I honestly couldn’t imagine how much my landscape would potentially have changed, and for what, in the end? These big cities and small villages that have hosted the Games have done so in vastly different ways and for plenty of different reasons, but at the end of it all, it’s always the same result: the closing ceremonies. It’s like they’re all exes of the Olympics. I wondered (and I’m still wondering) what these cities and their citizens are really left with after the Games pack up and leave.

GOOD: What kinds of problems do the Olympics create for host cities, either in the days after the games or the decades after?\n

GARY HUSTWIT: I think the biggest problem is when short-term urban planning meets long-term realities in cities. Does a city really need a dozen new stadiums and arenas, at a cost of billions, or are there more pressing issues that money should go towards? In some cases there’s massive displacement of communities in areas where this construction is going to happen, as we’ve seen in London and in Rio, where the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held.

GOOD: Are there any cities that seem very negatively affected by the legacy of the Olympics?\n

HUSTWIT: In recent history, Athens seems to be the city that’s been the most negatively affected. They spent $15 billion dollars on construction of new sports facilities that are sitting unused eight years later. I’m not saying that caused the Greek financial crisis, but it sure didn’t help matters.

GOOD: Do you think there are ways Olympic development and building can be approached differently to take into account a city’s long-term interests?\n

HUSTWIT: Well, I think cities need to think hard about exactly why they want to host a spectacle like the Olympics. If there’s a way to integrate Olympic-related development into the organic growth or re-generation of a city, or if the development is designed to be temporary, then it can make sense. There’s been a lot of discussion around London’s legacy plan; they’ve built some facilities that are meant to be dismantled after the games. We’re planning on photographing London for the project, but only after the Games are over.

GOOD: In the year 2050, how will (or how should) preparation for the games affect a host city?

HUSTWIT: Will there even be an Olympic Games in 2050? Seriously, I think it’s too far away to predict what global sporting events will still exist in 40 years, and what cities’ priorities will be. If the basic provisions of Kyoto are achieved by then, I’m not sure flying hundreds of thousands of people around the world to watch other people run around a track will make sense anymore. But I guess we’ll always to be drawn to the spectacle, so who knows.

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