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Why the 1980 Olympic Village Is Now a Prison

It’s one way to deal with leftover infrastructure

Federal Corrections Instiution, Ray Brook, is housed inside the former Olympic Village for the 1980 games in Lake Placid (Federal Bureau of Prisons, via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Hosting the Olympics is a significant undertaking for any city—not only do new stadiums have to be built to hold all sorts of different events, but the athletes need to have somewhere to stay. But when the Games end, the buildings and infrastructure remain, leaving the host city with the problem of figuring out what to do with them. Though many cities repurpose the Olympic buildings for other sports events and some occasionally leave them to rot, one American city dealt with leftover buildings by converting them into a federal prison.

At first glance, hosting the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, might seem like an unlikely place for one of the world’s largest sporting events. After all, many recent Olympic Games have been held in major metropolitan cities like Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. While the tiny town in upstate New York was already popular with skiers and athletes training for winter sports, hosting the Olympics would mean thousands of people parachuting into the remote town for just a few weeks, Brianna Nofil reports for Atlas Obscura.

Luckily, Lake Placid had already hosted the Winter Olympics back in 1932, so much of the infrastructure (like a bobsledding track) were already in place. The only major thing the local Olympic committee really needed to build was new housing for the 1,800 Olympic competitors—and to raise the funds, it turned to the U.S. government, Wayne Coffey reported for the New York Daily News.

By this time, cities around the world were becoming concerned with the cost of hosting the Games. Although Congress set aside $28 million for Lake Placid’s new Olympic Village, it came with the requirement that they be built with a second life already in mind. Lake Placid’s congressman, Robert McEwen, floated several options, like turning the village into a hospital, housing space or a permanent athletics facility, but in the end the only government agency that would sign on was the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Nofil reports.

At the time, arrests and incarceration were approaching record highs, and the Bureau of Prisons was trying to figure out how to house all the inmates. It had already planned on constructing a prison in the northeast, so taking over the Olympic Village seemed like a good idea, Nofil writes. However, the news wasn’t exactly comforting to the athletes who would be staying there during the Olympics.

"After four years of hard training we cannot expect competitors to live in such a lousy place,” said Gianfranco Cameli, a member of the Italian Olympic Committee, William Oscar Johnson reported for Sports Illustrated in 1979. “The rooms clearly show what they are meant for. Two persons cannot be in them. If two stay inside with the door closed for privacy, they'd feel as if they were in prison—suffocating.”

Athletes weren’t the only ones uncomfortable with the arrangement: American activists bitterly protested the decision. Still, despite the outrage, just a few months after the 1980 Olympics, the facilities reopened as Federal Correctional Institution Ray Brook. The prison still houses about 1,000 inmates today, and it is seen as one of the earliest models of the prison system as an economic driver in rural regions.

In recent years, Olympic planners have started thinking more about what will become of the facilities after the end of the Games so that they don’t pose as much of a burden on the host cities. Many of the stadiums built for the London and Rio Olympics feature modular structures that were intended to be broken down, moved and reconstructed into other buildings, such as housing and schools, Sam Lubell reports for Wired. While it still costs money and takes time, it seems like a goal more in keeping with the spirit of the Games.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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