words: chris isenberg

photography: jon pack, gary hustwit

What is the legacy of an Olympics? From Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt, every edition of the Games has its indelible stars, but for photographers Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit the most enduring performance is delivered by the host cities themselves. Those efforts are not measured in fractions of inches or seconds but revealed over years and decades. In their ongoing project, “The Olympic City,” Pack and Hustwit explore what happens after the Games have gone. 

The body of work engages with intensely political questions: Did a city use its resources wisely? Did construction leave a legacy for locals? Was it all worth it? But the individual images offer more testament than judgment. In a brilliant combination of investigative journalism and landscape photography, Pack and Hustwit document the ephemeral relationships between people, places, and evidence both structural and conceptual.

Intrigued by reports of wild building and spending in Beijing, Pack began the project after the 2008 Summer Games. His inquiry started closer to home in Brooklyn: he drove to Lake Placid, which offered dusty souvenir shops still selling off 1980 inventory, and an Olympic-themed motel. In Montreal, he found an Olympic Village that’s become a desirable residential neighborhood, while a stadium designed to feature the first-ever retractable roof has proved so dangerously ill-equipped for snow and ice it’s now permanently domed (and can only be used in the summer).  

Not quite sure what to do with the photographs from these missions, Pack showed them to his friend Hustwit, a filmmaker who was then premiering a documentary called Urbanized, a consideration of the modern city and its design. Hustwit was not only encouraging, he was determined to participate, despite his relative inexperience as a photographer. The two began divvying up Olympic cities: Mexico City, Seoul, Berlin, and Moscow for Hustwit; Sarajevo, Barcelona, and Athens for Pack. (With the exception of their trip to Turin, Italy, last year, they travel and work separately.) “There have never been strict guidelines or a brief as to how a city should be photographed,” says Hustwit. “It is very personal—just our interpretations of what these cities are now.” 

They published photos from the first 13 cities they shot in a 2013 art book, but “The Olympic City” is a project without an end. Beyond the many cities they have yet to visit, from Melbourne to Rio, and the upcoming Games in PyeongChang and Tokyo, even the sites they’ve already photographed continue to evolve. Their work is a fragmentary but forceful human history of the Olympic aftermath. “I didn’t want ‘ruin porn,’” Pack says. “We’re reacting to more of what’s happening in the space than the space itself.” 



GARY HUSTWIT: What was interesting there was how much the city had grown. It has tripled in size since ’68, like from seven million to 21 million. What had started out as a really remote area south of the city, where they built all this Olympic stuff, now it’s part of the center of the city. 

It is really hard to find traces because the city is completely unlike what you see when you look at photographs of ’68—it just doesn’t exist anymore. This stuff was in a field, it was vast, nothing around it. You go back and now you’re in one of the densest cities in the world. In the photos [from the ’68 Olympics], the statue is out in the middle of the pasture.

At the same time, in Mexico City the logo is every-where—the ’68 logo is an awesome one. It’s one of the best Olympic logos, and you see it all over the place. 

If you see the Olympic logo a lot, it’s probably an indication that they’ve done a good job. If you can’t find any trace of it, it’s usually been the other way around. In Mexico City, people wear T-shirts, it’s on the sides of freeways, the twin stadiums. And this is almost 50 years afterwards. 

The swimming stadium, the Olympic Village, it’s all still being used. It was a really defining moment for the city. They’ve done a great job. 




JON PACK: Athens was the first trip I took after we started collaborating. When I showed up in Athens they had just passed some kind of legislation that photographers and press needed to go through some department to get permission to go to these Olympic venues. But that department didn’t seem to exist. 

It had been an embarrassment that there were all these empty stadiums. It was during the financial crisis and a lot of people were blaming the Olympics for part of that problem. 

I had a great guy who was helping me out, Theo, who had worked at the Olympics. The first day we went out, we were amazed how everything was fenced off—a lot of these are public spaces, former Olympic areas that are now roped off and guarded. We were having trouble trying to get into a lot of the areas, and Theo came up with the idea to carry a picture of himself in his Olympics gear, from when he worked at the Games as a volunteer. All the guards were like, “No, no, no,” but then they would chat for a while, and the gate would open, and they would start showing us everything. Plus, being an American helped. 

Some places we jumped over fences, and every day we were stopped by the police, sometimes aggressively. We were stopped on the highway on day three, pulled over and physically patted down and searched. The cops would stop us and Theo would tell them, “He’s from New York, he’s a fan of the Olympics.” They were usually very friendly after that. 

My understanding is that Athens had bid on the previous Olympics, didn’t get it, and it was an embarrassment at the time for them. They said, “We’re going to get it at any cost.” I think it was, in this case, a planning problem, a combination of they didn’t plan for what to do with these 22 venues, and then the financial crisis hit. I guess they assumed these structures would become malls or people would buy them, rent them. But then no one had the money for that. It was a perfect storm.  

GH: In Athens, they commissioned a Calatrava arch. The following Olympic Games, maybe not Beijing, but London and Rio, the beach volleyball was just temporary grandstands around a sand pit. 

I think that’s a perfect example of why Athens failed: unnecessary development, unnecessary construction. You don’t need a permanent stadium to host a two week thing. There’s not going to be any beach volleyball happening in Athens after this. You can just put up some temporary stands and put a net up.




GH: Athens built two dozen venues with no real plan on what to do with them afterwards, and didn’t have the money to do anything else with them, so they’ve just sat there for 12 years. Beijing did it all and didn’t really have a plan afterwards, but it doesn’t matter to them, because they have a ton of money and they’re not accountable to anybody.

Beijing built a baseball stadium—a permanent baseball stadium, not a temporary one—and then the next month bulldozed it to build a shopping mall on top of it. They moved 10,000 people out of the area where the Bird’s Nest is and moved them someplace else. It only gets used two or three times a year, but it doesn’t matter because they can just pay workers to be there to keep it up. The appearance is like it’s still being used.

JP: It was really a display to show the world. They stopped all factory productions two weeks before the Olympics so that there was no pollution. The air was pristine. It’s amazing how quickly that works. Then right after the Olympics, they just switched it back.

GH: I have photos where it’s so polluted that it’s affecting the sensor of the camera, like the light is being refracted in a really weird way, and everything is purple.  




GH: In Turin, African refugees have taken over the Olympic Village. They’re squatting and it’s like 1,200 refugees. They’re probably going to get kicked out at some point soon.

JP: It’s a tense situation there, and a tenuous one. The city talks about evicting them all the time. I’ve got a couple photographer friends there, and they said they don’t want photographers—the refugees don’t want press.

GH: The refugees get demonized for any kind of crime that happens. They get blamed for everything, even though a lot of them are students and workers, just trying to make a living and stay in Italy.

JP: A good number of them are students at the Polytechnic University there. Their benefits got pulled—they used to get housing. 

The Olympic facilities were made as temporary housing, made to last two weeks and then broken down. But then the city decided to try to sell them as housing units. No one bought them, so they sat for seven years until the refugees squatted, with the help of an Italian activist.

Over a thousand people are living where there’s indoor paint on the outside of the buildings. There are temporary walls. The plumbing isn’t insulated. The Italian activist, he’s there almost every day—he’s fixing things and he mediates everything. We went with him, and everyone approached him: “We got a leak over here,” “I’m fighting with my neighbor.” They set up a school to teach English and Italian. They set up a store, a mosque, a barbershop. It’s pretty amazing what they’ve done with this really temporary structure that no one should even be living in. 

It’s really a remarkable re-use. It seems like Athens should be doing something like that, since they have so many refugees. In Athens they have these roped off, fenced off, guarded structures—and outside, in tents, is where the refugees are living.