The Olympics Transformed a Tiny Italian Village — But at a High Cost

As Cortina d’Ampezzo prepares to host again 70 years later, a local reflects on the residual effects of the 1956 Winter Games

The Olympics Transformed a Tiny Italian Village — But at a High Cost
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

On a cold, gray morning right before Christmas, I crossed the center of Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort town in the Dolomite Alps in northeastern Italy, on a mission to find the relics of a bobsled track built in the 1920s, which, I had been told, was now in complete abandon, partly dismantled and partly reclaimed by the spruce forest that surrounds it. I wanted to see for myself what was left of this unusual piece of infrastructure — a huge circuit amid trees where athletes in sleds would slide at high speed — not because of a passion for sports archaeology but because it has become one of the symbols of something much bigger and complex.

Cortina, a mountain town of about 5,000 people, has won a bid to co-host the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics together with Milan. The event will come 70 years after Cortina hosted one of the first Winter Games post-World War II, in 1956, which helped propel the town to stardom, making it a must-stop for the national and international jet set as a home to luxury real estate, elite sports and the most extravagantly expensive shops.

The 2026 Olympics bid was originally hailed by politicians as a way to give the regional economy a boost, rebuild infrastructure and reaffirm Cortina as an international destination for winter sports (the town regularly hosts ski competitions, including the World Ski Championships in 2021). But two years from the start of the Games, it’s clear that many see the event as just the latest step in a process of development that attracts foreign capital as well as providing tourism for the rich and ultrarich, while at the same time pricing out residents and making Cortina a difficult place to have a “normal” life, start a family or even find an apartment to rent long term.

This is a common issue throughout mountain communities in the Alps where tourism has come to be the number one source of income: While the industry expands and shapes everything, there is often no corresponding investment in basic services for residents, which fuels emigration and, ultimately, population decline. As Diego Cason, a sociologist who lives in and studies the region, told me, in these situations communities weaken and their electorate shrinks, as does the possibility of selecting representatives who would defend their interests. Local politicians seem to think that big events — like the Olympics or, before that, the World Ski Championships in Cortina — could help solve some of these issues, at least in part. But the reality looks more complex than a cash injection or some new infrastructure could solve.

I came to Cortina to make sense of this situation and to better understand my family’s deep connection to this place. I spent time in the area every year of my life, both during the summer and winter holidays. My mother was born in Cortina, just three years after the 1956 Winter Olympics, where my grandmother had worked and met my grandfather, although the family eventually moved away from the mountains to a city closer to Venice, where I grew up. The stories my grandmother would tell painted it as an era of progress, optimism, euphoria; simpler times, when property was affordable and jobs abundant.

Those were the economic boom years, when Italy affirmed itself as an industrial powerhouse, the middle class expanded, and opportunities came even in seemingly isolated areas like the mountains. People started going on ski trips. Through the years, Cortina’s symbol, a red squirrel, became a pop culture icon of sorts, as did the many versions of ads featuring pictures of smiling, wool-clad people on snowy slopes. The wealthy started building second homes where they would spend the summer and winter holidays, enticed by the promise of cleaner air, stunning views and “authentic” traditions — something that eventually became a buzzword to throw around on hotel leaflets and tourism board ads. A 1981 Bond movie partly shot in the town catapulted Cortina into the imagination of international crowds, and UNESCO’s 2009 designation of the Dolomites as a World Heritage Site gave tourism further impetus.

On a wall in my grandmother’s house (which still contains all of her belongings even though she passed away almost eight years ago), mementos and photographs remind of postwar years, a seminal period in her life as much as in the whole country’s history. One framed document stands out: a pale-blue diploma marked with the “Cortina 1956” symbol, the Olympic flame and five circles, signed by the secretary-general and president of the local organizational committee, recognizing my grandmother’s work in the event’s administration office. That job was one of the biggest points of pride for her — something that she was able to do for her community and that gave her the necessary experience to continue working and supporting her new family.

On that December morning, I walked past various four- and five-star hotels, real estate agencies, a building with a spa, whirlpool and sauna, and several restaurants serving the area’s typical hearty and butter-rich cuisine until, in about 10 minutes, I reached the edge of town. Treading carefully on an ice-covered sidewalk, I started hiking up the road that connects Cortina to its ski slopes.

Leaving the road, I slid downhill on a mix of snow and mud until I saw them: two curved slabs of concrete, taller than a person, carved into the mountainside and surrounded by trees. That is what remains of Cortina’s 1920s bobsled track, which is about to be rebuilt amid political controversy and opposition from locals. The track’s original rebuilding project was deemed too costly in 2023, and no building company came forward to complete it, prompting a decision to hold bobsled competitions elsewhere. Undeterred, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Matteo Salvini of the nationalist League party pushed forth in December with a reduced version of the project, which would still cost the state nearly $110 million, plus yearly maintenance costs that the municipality of Cortina would have to pay. This time, a building company accepted the challenge, and machinery is already expected on the mountain in the coming weeks, despite the International Olympic Committee’s advice that existing infrastructure be used instead and despite steady opposition from part of the local population.

Regional Gov. Luca Zaia, also of the League party, strongly advocated for Cortina’s role as co-host city. His government’s communication about the Olympics abounds with references to a glorious past that started with the 1956 Games and that needs to be revived. The ultimate goal, as Zaia said in 2019 after the Olympics bid won, is to increase the attractiveness of the entire Dolomites region from a sports and touristic standpoint.

The current local administration in Cortina holds similar views.

Zaia recently reiterated that getting the greenlight to host competitions “ushered in a renaissance for our mountains, with far-reaching consequences for the Veneto [region] and all of Italy.” Those mountains, continued Zaia, are the envy of the world, but they need some kind of Marshall Plan to be revamped after years of difficulties.

The discussion over whether to rebuild a piece of infrastructure for an extremely niche sport may seem like a tangential issue at most, but that’s not the case. The track ignited a much bigger debate between those who imagine a future with big sports events and more tourism and those who call for a different kind of resource allocation in the mountains, more attentive to essential services that would dissuade residents from leaving. It’s a debate that reaches beyond both Cortina and the upcoming Olympics.

On my way back from the track, I passed by the 1950-built Olympic ice hockey and skating rink and, a few hundred yards past it, the house where my mother’s family lived the first years of her life. It’s a dark wood building that sits right next to a mini-golf course where I remember playing a few times as a kid. There’s no light coming through the closed windows, but the building looks well kept enough to assume that someone lives there, at least part of the year.

I kept thinking of something my mother recently told me, reiterating the revamping visited upon Cortina: that even as wealthy tourism exploded in Cortina when she was growing up, there was still space back then for “regular” people to build a life there. My grandparents, who went on to become high school teachers, qualified as regular people by all standards, I thought.

As the decades went by and property prices kept climbing, it’s hard to overstate how much this situation has changed for the younger generations.

A quick search for that same address on a popular real estate website gives a sense of the magnitude of the problem. A family-sized apartment in the same building where my grandparents rented 60 years ago would now sell for just under $1.1 million, and a month’s rent would be about $3,300, according to the website’s estimates. This is much higher than the average price in Milan, a metropolis of 1.4 million people and Italy’s financial capital. It is completely unaffordable for most, considering that Italy’s net-adjusted average yearly income is now just above $29,000, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Francesca Polato is 30 and was born and raised in Cortina. She came of age soon after the 2008 financial crisis, when prices dropped and there was a sense that young people could afford to rent apartments and live on their own, a prized ambition for the country’s youth, who are among the latest in Europe to leave the parental household. But the exciting trend for young adults to venture out on their own rapidly reversed, and by the time Polato was ready to move out of her parents’ home, she couldn’t find anything. After a series of demoralizing viewings of pricey basements-turned-studios, she resorted to continue living with her parents, until she met her current partner and they decided to leave town together.

“There is such a wall of resignation,” Polato said, referring to her generation’s attitude toward the housing market. “I started assuming that my life won’t be in Cortina going forward.”

Polato and her partner moved about 12 miles away, which might not sound like much by urban standards but feels different in the mountains.

“We grow up with a mentality connected to the single village,” explained Polato, who works as an accountant for a local company. “Up until a certain point, I never even considered moving away.”

Over the past four years, demand for luxury housing in the Dolomites has risen steadily, according to a report by data firms Immobiliare.it Insights and LuxuryEstate.com. The report included the Dolomites in a roster of Italian locations with the highest-priced property, like Milan, Florence and the resort-studded Emerald Coast in Sardinia.

The arrival of the Olympics and the end of the pandemic have given new impetus to property hunting in Cortina, and prices don’t show signs of abating, Barbara Alberti, a real estate agent in town, told me.

Stringent regulations put in place since the 1970s to preserve Cortina’s historic center and the natural environment mean that there is no option to build new homes, and the majority of existing ones are either the second homes of people who don’t live there full time or vacation houses to be rented. Alberti owns an agency that sells and rents property, mostly to visitors. She said that the few homes that aren’t for tourism are normally off the real estate agency circuit entirely and that locals just use word-of-mouth. As a real estate agent, “I wouldn’t feel good making profits off of locals,” she told me.

Sisto Menardi is a jovial man in his 60s. A retired civil servant, he doesn’t own a cell phone, so to set up an interview I called him on his landline, the same one he uses to receive bookings for the bed and breakfast he runs part time from his family home. He welcomes me into the house, a traditional wood-and-stone building with flowers at the windows, and walks me into a wood-paneled room where a majolica stove gives off a pleasant warmth.

Menardi’s family has lived in that house on the mountainside, a five-minute drive from Cortina’s center, for generations. Throughout his life, he has seen the tourism industry create wealth and well-being in the community, but also endless disruption, especially in the housing market.

Menardi told me the story of an apartment his mother owned, close to the family home, which he said was valued at $768,000 when she passed away two and a half years ago. Since then, he and his six siblings have faced an all-too-common dilemma in that part of the country. They want to hold on to the apartment, but they don’t know how to co-own it together. “It’s difficult. None of us has the money to buy the others out,” he said. Yet they’re reluctant to put it on the market because they know it will be snapped up by an investor who will probably turn it into a short-term rental.

Alberti, the real estate agent, said that this is a common occurrence and one of the reasons a lot of homes end up being sold off to nonresidents. “We aren’t a rich city,” she said.

According to Menardi, Cortina’s fame has contributed to a distorted idea of what life is like for locals there.

“They see us as rich people just because we live here, but as far as I’m concerned, the opposite is true,” he said. “A pension is not enough to live on.”

As he sees it, Cortina’s calling has now almost shifted from holiday destination to prime investment hub, where people don’t necessarily buy property to live or vacation in but rather to invest money in a place where the price per square foot isn’t ever likely to drop significantly.

Menardi, like other residents I spoke with, also believes that tourism in the area should be tamed a little and that Cortina doesn’t need any more publicity — through the Olympics or otherwise — than it already has.

The local administration sees things differently. Roberta Alvera, the deputy mayor, told me that they plan to give a boost to tourism in what is now considered low season, in order to spread out visitors and make the town “livable for more months of the year,” she said.

“Tourism is the main source of income for most residents,” Alvera said. “We can’t think about living off tourism and then be annoyed at it. You’ve got to make up your mind.”

Cortina sits in the middle of a wide, sunny valley surrounded by rocky mountains that reach a height of nearly 5,000 feet, less than an hour’s drive from the border with Austria. Coming from Venice, people can reach the “queen of the Dolomites,” as the town is dubbed, driving about an hour on a highway and then another hour on a two-lane, winding road that is prone to traffic jams. That road cuts through a valley named Cadore, where my grandmother’s family is originally from, and where more and more people like Polato, who cannot find a place to live in Cortina, have been moving. It’s also where visitors who want to find more affordable vacation rentals and less crowded hiking paths usually stay.

Pieve di Cadore, my grandmother’s hometown, is about 18 miles from Cortina and is where my family and I always return to year after year, staying in an apartment that used to be hers and now belongs to my mother and aunt. We spend our time hiking. I have come to see the place as somewhat frozen in time, a point of certainty in the sometimes chaotic flux of my life as an expat journalist.

Pieve di Cadore is also home to the valley’s main hospital, where patients with more serious conditions from Cortina (which has a smaller health center) or people who get into mountain accidents are taken to. But there is a problem. Over the past decade, an overhaul of the region’s health care system has progressively chipped away at the hospital’s services, moving many of them to another, larger hospital about 25 miles away from Pieve di Cadore, or 43 miles from Cortina. As of now, Pieve di Cadore’s hospital doesn’t have a 24-hour cardiology ward or the facilities to perform emergency surgery, official documents from the region’s health care system show.

It’s curious for me to find out about this after my mother told me that my great-grandmother was admitted to that same hospital for a heart condition and was there for weeks in the 1970s.

The health care situation is one of the issues that many point to when reflecting on the fate of mountain communities that are outside the limelight of the tourist season and big sports events.

While people like Polato or Menardi are determined to stay and wouldn’t imagine their lives away from the mountains, many others decide to leave. In Cortina and the neighboring valley, all the way to Pieve di Cadore and beyond, the population has been steadily declining for decades now, which has had the consequence of eating away at the basic services that critics say won’t be revived by the arrival of the Olympics.

Not having a hospital with a comprehensive suite of facilities is a big hurdle in the way of stopping depopulation, but it’s also true that from the government’s perspective, the amount of people who currently live there isn’t enough to justify the decision to open an emergency room with full diagnostic services, sociologist Cason told me. “That is the mechanism that leads to a reduction in public services, since a public service, just like a private one, has to perform economies of scale,” Cason said.

According to the researcher, the region lacks ad hoc policies to revive mountain communities, and that is poised to worsen depopulation to the point of leaving entire valleys abandoned, much like has already started happening in the Western Alps and in other mountain areas around the world, he said.

Growing up, both my sister and I didn’t find spending time in the mountains particularly exciting, notwithstanding some fun during the few days of skiing in the winter. I very much felt the difference between us, who had lives to go back to in “the plain” — as non-mountain cities are commonly referred to over there — and full-time mountain residents. Everything seemed more difficult in the mountains, where narrow and winding roads made for longer journeys. It seemed like the perfect place to spend some weeks per year and then return to an easier life in the city. I always wondered what it must have been like for kids my age to brave consistently snowy winter months to go to school — something we, in “the plain,” rarely had to do. What were the lives of full-time residents really like? I wondered. It’s only when I reached adolescence and then early adulthood that the place started to occupy more space in my heart. I started spending more time there and became more interested in the community. I got a sense that, yes, people live differently there. Buses don’t come that often and people mostly drive to places. Bars close early. Sometimes businesses close down and don’t get reopened.

I spoke about this with Sindi Manushi, the mayor of Pieve di Cadore. She is convinced that what the area really needs in order to thrive is heightened attention to social services — as well as better public transport. While there aren’t many options to reverse depopulation in the short term, there is something for the medium term, Manushi said: “We absolutely have to hang in there and rebuild basic services.”

Most of the big projects that should shape Cortina and the Cadore Valley in the next couple of years — besides the bobsled track — have to do with roads, like a revamp of the two-lane road to Cortina that every visitor gets stuck on at least once in classic Sunday night traffic jams. For the politicians who are allocating funds, remaking roads and building new tunnels and bridges is a way to leave a lasting legacy on the area after a big event like the Olympics.

So far, there is uncertainty over whether this type of legacy can in any way help keep communities from crumbling, improve their access to health care and persuade the young to stay and build a life there.

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