The Olympic torch had not yet entered Rio de Janiero’s Maracana Stadium and media reports out of Brazil already depicted a city ill-prepared for the events ahead. But the success of these Olympic games will not ultimately be determined in the coming weeks, or even the next several months.

The legacy of the games is formed well after the Olympic and Paralympic competitions come to an end. Indeed, when the final medal is awarded and the last flag flown, Rio will face the same task as virtually all of its predecessors: leveraging its host city status to drive tourism, economic growth, and urban renewal for decades to come.

There are roughly 40 cities to serve as examples, both exemplary (Barcelona!) and cautionary (sigh, Athens). New York-based photographers Gary Hustwit and Jon Pack have visited 16 of them as part of The Olympic City, a photo book and documentary project the pair started in 2008 to capture the successes and failures of former hosts.

While The Olympic City is not an exhaustive study of former host cities, it provides a window into what many get right and wrong after the world’s TV sets tune out. Here are six examples of cities that managed to use the Olympic games and the massive investment they require to clever, innovative and, sometimes, unexpected ends.


Economists who study the Olympics (and there are quite a few) quickly point to Barcelona as a marquee example for how the games can transform an ordinary place into a bustling, international destination. The Spanish coastal city once used its access to the sea for industry, but much of that had begun to vanish by the time the 1992 games rolled around. Recognizing that the coast was underutilized, the government built the Olympic Village on the water and installed a large marina and seaside promenade that, today, boasts many restaurants. Barcelona’s redevelopment efforts at large have paid off. The city welcomed 7.9 million tourists in 2014, up from 1.7 million in 1990.

Lake Placid

The small town in upstate New York may seem like it would lack the means to host an event as large as the 1980 Winter Olympics. To finance the Olympic Village, Lake Placid had to lean on the federal government, which is not in the business of building housing for the world’s finest athletes. What does the government build? Prisons. So that’s exactly what Lake Placid developers erected, a prison that would house athletes — and then inmates. The federal correctional institution, Ray Brook, houses 765 prisoners today. An existing prison, the Adirondack Correctional Facility, also housed security personnel, customs officers and other staff during the games while its inmates were temporarily relocated.


Canada may not be top of mind for those looking to experience a tropical rainforest. But the Biôdome de Montreal allows visitors to explore a wide variety of climates, including a maple forest, subarctic coast and gulf waters. Until Sept. 5, the “Poop Tales” exhibit will teach you how to identify animals by their droppings. This natural wonder was once the velodrome for cycling events during the 1976 Summer Olympics. Since the biodome opened in 1992, it has attracted a multitude of scientists, students, and tourists. The biodome is located inside Montreal’s Olympic Park, which still contains the event’s original sports arenas and athlete housing (now offices and apartments).


The Italian government tried to sell some of the athlete housing in Turin after the 2006 Winter Olympics, but buyer demand for poorly constructed apartments was virtually nonexistent as the financial crisis took hold. Instead, many buildings sat vacant for nearly a decade until refugees from Africa began squatting there. The Guardian reported in May that 1,100 people from 30 countries now occupy the buildings. While the refugee housing is not government sanctioned or funded, Italian activists and humanitarian groups have helped to set up classrooms, shops, restaurants and other basic amenities. The housing is still not glamorous, but it provides shelter to those in need.


Some of the major projects that provide the infrastructure backbone for Munich were constructed as part of the 1972 Summer Olympics. Perhaps the most notable of them is the U-Bahn subway system. Opened in 1971 with just one line and 13 stations, the U-Bahn today counts eight lines and 96 stations that provided an estimated 390 million rides in 2014. The capital of Bavaria has plenty of other remnants from the games as well. The primary Olympic stadium, Olympiastadion, now serves as a tourist attraction for those who enjoy the outdoors. Visitors can take part in a two-hour climb on the roof and then zip line 650 feet across the stadium floor.


The presence of the Games can still be felt in South Korea’s capital city of Seoul nearly 30 years after it hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. That’s clear when you step through the World Peace Gate and into the Seoul Olympic Park. Now one of the city’s largest public gathering spaces, it attracts throngs of Korean families looking for green space in the sprawling, densely developed city. Spanning 4.75 million square feet, the park is filled with man-made bodies of water, walking paths, art installations, museums and a recently opened concert venue. It also houses the country’s largest sports arena.

Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.