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What Happens To An Olympic City After The Olympics?

Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit are always a little late to the games. That is: They're interested in the Olympics, but only years after they end. So when I asked if they'll be going to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, they demurred, saying something along the lines of, "Maybe someday."

"We're not for or against the Olympics," says Hustwit. "We wanted to see how all of this development has been integrated into the cities — or not. And to look at the idea of planning ... for the legacy of these facilities."

It's a natural extension of Hustwit's unofficial beat; he produced and directed the documentaries Helvetica and Urbanized — about how typography and urban planning inform our daily lives.

But it was Pack who first started exploring this idea in 2008. He was intrigued by the price tag of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"After it was over I still couldn't wrap my head around it, and so I tried to see if there was a project there," he says.

There was. Pack's first stop for The Olympic City project, as they call it, was Lake Placid, N.Y., home of the 1980 Winter Games. Since then, he and Hustwit have been to about 13 former Olympic host cities to explore the meaning of multibillion-dollar civic investments.

What they've found, of course, varies from city to city.

Barcelona, the host of the 1992 Summer Games, is often cited as an example of relatively good investment, Pack explains.

"They did 50 years of infrastructure improvements in the five years leading up to the games," he says, and to this day, many of the venues are still being used.

On the other hand, Athens, the venue for the 2004 Summer Games, has allowed many of the venues to fall into disrepair and they are fenced off from the public.

And then there was Sarajevo, where the 1984 Winter Games were held, where Pack literally had to traipse around active land mines left from the Bosnian War.

"The questions a city has to ask itself are: Is this really necessary? And who's gonna benefit from all this development? Everyone likes to have a great party," says Hustwit. "But after two weeks ... I think it's a different reality for the people who live there."

In Rio de Janiero, protesters have been making their reality known in recent days.

Like Beijing, where families were forcibly moved for Olympics construction, evictions have swept through Rio favelas, Hustwit says. And that, he adds, has polarized the city.

"Any time there's a change to the city, there are people on both sides of that event," he says. "And that's one of the things that makes cities vital — and one of the things that makes photographing in cities so interesting. They're in a constant state of change."

Pack and Hustwit joined me via Skype for a quick call as they were gearing up for an exhibition of photos from the Kickstarter-funded Olympic City project, opening today at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn. The exhibition corresponds with the release of their limited-edition book.

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Claire O'Neill