The 9 weirdest cities that have hosted the Olympics (and why!)

A picture taken in Moscow on October 6, 2013, shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin holding a torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay across Russia.

With the Winter Olympics starting, the world’s attention is drawn toward Sochi, a small and sunny resort city in the Southwestern corner of Russia. And with that attention, a question. Why Sochi?

It does seem strange to choose a city known for its beach and palm trees to host something called the Winter Olympics, but strange city choices aren’t new to the Games. So without further ado, here are the nine oddest choices to host the Olympics:

Melbourne & Stockholm. That's right, the 1956 Summer Games were held in two entirely different cities, in two entirely different countries, and on two entirely different continents. No, track athletes didn’t run the 100 meters in Melbourne and then take a flight to Stockholm to compete in the 200 meters.  Melbourne was picked as the host city and nearly all of the events happened there, but because of Australia’s strict quarantine laws, the equestrian events had to be held in Stolkholm. The Olympic organizers were not aware of these laws before they picked Melbourne, and by the time the International Olympic Committee learned of them, it was already too late to do anything about it.

Helsinki. As Sochi is one of the warmest cities to host a Winter Olympics, Helsinki was one of the coldest cities to host a Summer Olympics. During the summer months it averages 64 degrees, which isn't too cold, unless you compare it to other Summer Games. The Beijing Olympics had an average high of 87 degrees, and the Athens Olympics averaged 90 degrees. But that’s not the only reason Helsinki was a strange choice for the 1952 Olympics. It's actually the smallest and least economically powerful city the IOC has ever picked. According to Brookings, Helsinki has the lowest GDP of any city to host the Summer Olympics. And Finland is the smallest nation to have organized them. By all accounts, it did a fine job hosting, with 70,000 people crowding into the stadium stadium. At the time, Helsinki had a population of 380,000.

Squaw Valley, Calif. The Winter Olympics has been hosted in some fairly out-of-the-way places. Lake Placid, N.Y., Albertville, France, and Innsbruck, Austria, aren't really megacities. But the 1960 Winter Olympics have the distinction of being the only Games to go to a place with only one resident. When Alexander Cushing persuaded the IOC to have the games in his new resort of Squaw Valley, there was one chairlift, one lodge, and one person living there. That person was Alexander Cushing. Fortunately for Cushing’s legacy, a world-class winter sports complex was built in time for the games, and afterwards, Squaw Valley became a destination ski resort, frequently visited by Hollywood stars. In fact, the opening ceremonies were designed by Walt Disney himself, and included the release of 2,000 doves. 

 

St. LouisSt. Louis. The choice for the 1904 Summer Olympics wasn’t as out-of-the blue as you might think. St. Louis was the fourth-largest American city at the time, and the games were part of an immense World’s Fair that celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Unfortunately, the World’s Fair completely overshadowed the Olympics. Even more unfortunate, it led to one of the most disgusting moments in Olympic history. A competition, concocted by one of the Fair's organizers, pitted Olympic athletes against "savages" from the human zoos at the World's Fair. Yes, "human zoos." The fair took people from "primitive" societies, recreated their villages in St. Louis, and then let tourists gawk at them. It was disgusting. And the contest between these displaced tribespeople and Olympic athletes was embarrassing.

Montreal. Montreal makes sense as an Olympic host city. It's the second-largest city in Canada and generates $142.8 billion in GDP. It wouldn't have been a strange choice for the IOC at all, if not for the corruption and cost overruns. Originally estimated to be around $360 million, costs for the 1976 Summer Games ballooned to $1.6 billion. Montreal's Olympic Stadium was eventually paid for. In 2006. Although the site of some of the greatest moments in Olympic history (Nadia Comanici’s perfect 10 being the best example), the Montreal games stand as a reminder for future host cities to not overspend on the Games.

Moscow & Los Angeles. Moscow and Los Angeles are two of the biggest and most culturally important cities in the world. Combined, they have a GDP of over $1 trillion. However, the IOC's choice to pick Moscow as the host of the 1980 Summer Games and Los Angeles as the host of the 1984 Games presented a few problems, as there happened to be a Cold War going on at the time. The U.S. organized a boycott of the Moscow Games as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More than 50 nations joined America in the boycott, lowering the number of participating nations to 80, the fewest since 1956. In response, the USSR boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. Only thirteen other countries joined them, but this bloc of countries took home 58 percent of the gold medals in the 1976 Olympics. And though the Los Angeles Games are now remembered for actually managing to turn a $223 million profit (mostly because of corporate sponsorship and using existing structures), picking these two cities caused the level of athletic competition to dip significantly.

Sochi. This list had to include Sochi, one of the strangest host cities to be chosen. It's a subtropical resort town that boasts palm trees and beaches. Granted, the skiers and snowboarders will be skiing and snowboarding on the nearby mountains, but organizers are still hoarding snow in case it doesn't, well, snow. And because Sochi is a sunny vacation destination, organizers had to construct massive sports and transportation projects. Partly due to that, it's the most expensive Olympics in history, with a price tag of nearly $50 billion. Certainly one of the weirdest host cities ever to be picked.

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