Not far from our perch in Verona is a city that once had the attention of the world. In 2006, Torino, Italy, hosted the winter Olympics.
Since its games, Torino has returned to being a mid-sized town of about one million people. International news cameras left and people went back to their daily routines. Which brings up the question asked often by economists and culture researchers: What happens to a city after it hosts the Olympics? Billions of dollars are spent anticipating the rush of tourists, attention, and commerce. After two weeks in the spotlight, does the city win or lose?
The answer is complicated. The short explanation is that it depends on the city, and how it picks up the pieces of its global party. Hosts like Mexico City (1968) and Barcelona (1992) found ways to use the glitzy stadiums and venues for their own citizens. A beach that was built in Barcelona for the 1992 games has turned into a popular spot for locals. The Olympic village there became a vibrant new neighborhood.
Two photographers named Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit have pointed their cameras at former Olympic cities. For their book, The Olympic City, they saw the unfortunate cases, too, where venues become costly symbols of excess and disrepair. Athens (which hosted in 2000) thought the games would revive its sluggish economy. Yet after the global recession hit in 2007—followed by Greece’s own financial panic three years later—the venues are not only unused, but heavily guarded to keep away vandals and, one presumes, curious reporters and their cameras.
The key boon to host cities comes through sporting events and live entertainment. Cities angling for the Olympics usually argue that having an excuse to build large venues would help them attract bigger events. Sometimes it works. In other cases, the windfall comes from tourists who want to visit a place they once saw on TV. A 2006 study from the State University of New York found that 25 years after the Lake Placid, New York, winter games in 1980, the region was still making about $300 million a year from the Olympics, primarily from people hoping to ski and bobsled in the wake of great athletes.
Torino’s story has a happy ending, at least for now. A special subway built for the games was extended in 2010 to accommodate more passengers. That same year, Torino hosted both the Figure Skating World Championship and the Luge World Cup. The best measure of Olympic success may be the one that’s hardest to calculate: pride. Several years after its day in the sun, Torino’s mayor boasted that the Lonely Planet guidebook used to list the city as an industrial town near Milan. After the games, Milan was described as a commercial center near Torino.