Olympic Urbanism: The Athletes’ Village

From derelict ruins in Berlin to suburban townhomes in Sydney to public housing in Athens.

Athletes’ villages from the Summer Olympics. Top: Mexico City, 1968. [Photo from Official Report of the Olympic Games] Middle: Seoul, 1988. [Photo by Kyu Sung Woo Architects Inc.] Bottom: Athens, 2004. [Photo by Takis Gavrilis & Partners]

Since the inception of the modern Olympics in 1896, host governments have used the games to make a statement about their cities’ place in the world. Hitler turned the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a platform for Nazi propaganda, and the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, in Moscow and Los Angeles, were proxy sites for the Cold War. In recent decades, mayors have touted global sporting events as a form of urban development: a way of strengthening local industries, enlarging the tax base and subsidizing investment in public infrastructure. While signature stadiums like Beijing’s Bird’s Nest (Herzog & de Meuron, 2008) and London’s Olympic Stadium (Populous, 2012) grab the headlines, the urban form of the Olympic Village is often overlooked.

In the early Olympiads, there was no need for official athlete housing. Only 241 competitors took part in the 1896 Athens ceremonies — a far cry from the 17,000 expected in London this summer. At the 1928 Amsterdam games, athletes were accommodated in spare rooms in boarding houses and aboard ships. The first Olympic Village was built in 1932, in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, but it was dismantled after the games and virtually no trace survives today. Not until the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki did host cities began to plan and develop permanent structures for housing athletes. Typically, the buildings were converted to private residences after the games were over, although some became public housing. The mid-century villages are still recognizable, even as their urban contexts have undergone dramatic transformations.

A turning point in the arc of Olympic planning efforts came in 1992 in Barcelona. The city’s strategy of using the games to catalyze urban development projects provided such a spectacular return on investment that every host city since has attempted to replicate it, with mixed results. Boosterism often drowns out the concerns of social justice activists who say Olympic funding supports elite projects over the public good. In Barcelona, for example, the city council abandoned a promise to convert Olympic Village units to subsidized housing. 1 This year, as the Olympics return to London for a third time, Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to cash in: “From tourism to business, sport to investment, we are determined to maximize the benefits of 2012 for the whole country.” Exactly how this vision will pan out is uncertain, but that hasn’t slowed the elaborate redevelopment plans already underway for the 2016 games in the Barra da Tijuca district of Rio de Janeiro.

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  1. Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, “The Olympic (Affordable) Housing Legacy and Social Responsibility,” 8th International Symposium for Olympic Research, International Center for Olympic Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, 2006.
Anisha Gade, “Olympic Urbanism: The Athletes’ Village,” Places Journal, July 2012. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/120719

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Past Discussions View
  • 07.31.2012 at 19:26

    Thanks for an interesting walk down memory lane. I am disappointed that athlete's villages for winter Olympics were not included. The 2010 villages in Vancouver and Whistler are very good examples of urbanism that should have lasting value in their contexts, as opposed to many of the doctrinaire and shockingly poor efforts shown.

    Another interesting line of enquiry would be for athletes village design competitions for both summer and winter Olympics, whether for the eventual host city or those cities making bids. Particularly noteworthy in my opinion is Thom Mayne/Morphosis' snaking megastructure concept for the unsuccessful New York City bid.

  • 08.08.2012 at 07:51

    I'm curious what's the basis for the author's remark that there was no Olympic housing in the 1928 Olympic games in Amsterdam. I've always thought that the social housing from the twenties in the triangle Stadionweg / Olympiaplein / Olympiakade was built to house atlethes during the games. The sculpture in the facades, depicting Olympic sports, could attest to that. But maybe I'm wrong.

  • 08.10.2012 at 08:15

    DK, thank you for bringing these projects to our attention. While these apartment towers were central to the south Amsterdam plan, the buildings themselves are not mentioned in the Official Olympic Report of 1928. To be sure, the Olympics was a major catalyst for the redevelopment and extension plans of Amsterdam in the mid to late 1920s, however it is unclear whether athletes actually resided in these particular buildings. The lack of documentation to settle the matter you bring up can be attested to the fact that the early Olympics were not as formal nor as well documented as they are today. For example, in the early 20th Century, there was often confusion as to the exact number of participating countries due to the fact that regional club teams (not nationalized teams) were common competitors. As a result, many details about the early Olympic events are not easy to decipher and often require extensive research and investigation.

  • 10.09.2012 at 13:41

    Congratulations on an excellent collation. My understanding Anisha is that the Amsterdam area around the stadium was a new region for the city post Games and used many sport references for street names and residential plots - although I am British my mother in law actually lived for many years on Sportstraat in this area. Also as a member of the Village people your comment about Sydney and garages is not quite accurate. The garages of the family houses were converted to bedrooms for the Games with the up and over door as a solid wall with external window - the laundry space adjacent was modified for the users shower facilities. A third of the Sydney Village footprint contained wooden beach side properties which were eventually sold off and relocated to make way for more traditional and permanent residences - to their credit the Australian Olympic team opted to use these 'temporary facilities' at Games time.