Mark Hobson, a 61-year-old creative director and wilderness guide, pushes his sled into the luge track in Lake Placid, New York, leans back, and rockets down the same ice chute used by the world’s best lugers in the 1980 Olympic Games. The clatter is deafening as he picks up speed, cranks into the turns, and drops 20 stories at a thrilling 65 mph.
“You're on your back a couple inches off the ice. It’s a real rush,” Hobson says of the experience. “We've had two Olympics here. It’s great to be part of that tradition.”
Like Lake Placid’s sports center, many Olympic venues stay open to the public after the flame has been extinguished. For host cities, the sites are a lasting physical legacy of the Games' grandeur, not to mention a good tourism draw. And for travelers, they're a great way to experience Olympic glory—if only for a moment.
Whether your passion is for summer or winter sports, you have plenty of options. The aquatically inclined can do laps at Georgia Tech’s $21 million Aquatic Center, constructed for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and outfitted with an Olympic pool, diving well, and 184-foot waterslide. And at Utah’s Deer Valley resort, advanced skiers can schuss down Know You Don’t, the same alpine slalom run where Bode Miller took a silver during the 2002 Winter Games.
Into more extreme stuff?The same park boasts four massive ski jumps, the largest of which launches freestylers some 70 feet into the air and into a 750,000-gallon pool that’s “bubbled” to soften the impact.
“You can’t help but get pumped up when you're about to take your first run down the track or about to execute your first water ramp jump,” says Jon Green, the program manager for Utah’s park. “You think about all the athletes from around the world who have competed on the same ice or jumped into the same pool."
Like Utah’s park, which offers multiday freestyle camps, many Olympic venues provide formal instruction—sometimes from former Olympic athletes. Montreal’s Rowing Club offers private beginner classes at the city’s Olympic Basin, a 1.3-mile mirror-flat waterway built just for rowing during the 1976 Summer Games. This February, Lake Placid’s Olympic Center kicks it up a notch and hosts a weeklong fantasy camp where would-be Gretzkies can skate with members of the 1980 Games' USSR-beating “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team.
And, unbeknownst to many, the International Olympic Committee operates a massive, 210-acre complex in Munich, Germany—site of the 1972 Games—that, like some Disney World of athletics, has facilities for almost every sport under the five rings' mantle, plus unorthodox fare like rappelling and roof climbing. There’s even a motion-simulation theater that provides a virtual experience of Olympic boxing, mountain biking, and kayaking.
Of course, if all of that sounds too much like a spectacle-laden theme park, it’s always easy to return to a simpler time in the Games' history: pack your trunks, grab a flight to Athens, and head for the cobalt-blue Aegean Sea. It was there that swimmers battled 12-foot waves and frigid temperatures to compete in the first modern Olympics back in 1896. In the water, close your eyes and imagine the roaring crowd and the rush of adrenaline as you knife through the waves and push toward the finish line. Concentrate, and it will feel just like the real Olympics—only with a lot less pressure.
Penrith Whitewater Stadium
Olympic Pedigree: Built for the 2000 Games’ canoe and kayak slalom competitions, Penrith is the only man-made whitewater course of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Be an Olympian: Take a half-day sampler class to learn basic movements and paddling technique ($66). Try the two-day novice course to tackle moving water and learn efficient strokes, break-outs, and rolling ($240).
Water Cube, Beijing, China
Olympic Pedigree: Home to swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming in 2008, and possibly where amphibious phenom Michael Phelps breaks Mark Spitz’s Olympic record of seven gold medals.
Be an Olympian: Chinese officials haven’t released details yet, but say that the Water Cube—an architectural wonder resembling a massive, membranous blue box built from soap bubbles—will become a water park for the public after the Games’ conclusion.
Georgia International Horse Park
Olympic Pedigree: Dutch racer Bart Brentjens won a gold on the Atlanta track, site of the Olympics’ first-ever mountain biking competition.
Be an Olympian: North America’s only Olympic mountain biking course has eight trails and more than 1,000 feet of elevation. Ride year-round or start training for the Dirty Spokes Mountain Bike Race—open to beginner and expert riders—to be held this October ($5 trail fee + $60 event registration).
Olympic Rowing Basin
Olympic Pedigree: Home to rowing events in the 1976 Games, and one of the largest artificial outdoor rowing facilities in North America.
Be an Olympian: Sign up for one of the eight-hour “Learn to Row” classes offered April through May by the Montreal Rowing Club ($130) (www.avironmontreal.com), and paddle 1.3 miles of pure, flat water, with stunning views of downtown Montreal.
Olympic Pedigree: 1972 Games’ home to track and field, boxing, weight lifting, archery, modern pentathlon, swimming, wrestling, cycling, fencing, handball, gymnastics, judo, soccer, and volleyball.
Be an Olympian: Go swimming, skating, running, and rowing, and play tennis. You can also watch the pros compete—and pick up pointers—at the park’s track and field, swimming, and figure skating training centers.
Olympic Pedigree: Snowboarding and freestyle skiing in 2010, and site of Shaun “Flying Tomato” White’s likely total domination of the half-pipe à la Turin 2006.
Be an Olympian: Cruise down 52 downhill runs and 2,010 feet of vertical drop, and explore a monster terrain park. Intermediate to expert riders can join the two-hour snowboard clinic at the Cypress Snow School, then take a shot at the 22-foot walled Olympic super half-pipe ($109, plus the cost of a lift ticket).
Olympic Pedigree: Dating back to the 1935 World Championships, the track in Igls also hosted the luge and bobsled competitions during both the 1964 and 1976 Winter Games.
Be an Olympian: Take a hair-raising, 60-mph ride on the park’s 4,165-foot-long combination luge and bobsled track, with 14 curves and a vertical drop of more than 320 feet (from $47). Wheeled bobsledding available during the summer ($40).
Torino Olympic Park
Olympic Pedigree: 2006 Games’ home to hockey, ice skating, biathlon, luge, bobsled, skeleton, alpine skiing, snowboarding, curling, and ski jumping.
Be an Olympian: Strap on the skates and put on the tights for figure skating lessons at Palaghiaccio Torre Pellice, the park’s ice skating rink ($157 for 10 lessons). Then stroll the Olympic Village’s arcade, grab dinner (preferably someplace that features the region’s best-known products—white truffles and Barolo wine), and stay at the Hotel Pragelato, overlooking the ski jumping stadium.
Utah Olympic Park
Olympic Pedigree: 2002 home to luge, bobsled, skeleton, and Nordic jumping combined events, and where, during the debut of women’s bobsleigh competition, Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to earn a winter gold medal.
Be an Olympian: Attend one of the park’s Air Intro camps, a half-day class that teaches basic aerial and freestyle skiing maneuvers ($95). You'll hurtle off one of the park’s freestyle jumps into a 750,000-gallon pool of bubbling water.
Birkebeineren Ski Stadium
Olympic Pedigree: Italian Manuela Di Centa earned medals in all five cross-country events at Birkebeineren, site of the 1994 Winter Games’ cross-country skiing and biathlon competitions.
Be an Olympian: Start with the stadium’s three-mile-long outdoor cross-country trail (free admission), then check out the biathlon facilities—open year-round and with or without skis—where you can fire rounds at 30 Olympic targets.
Lake Placid Olympic Region
Olympic Pedigree: Figure skater-turned-movie star Sonja Henie took one gold medal at the Olympic Center’s rink in 1932. Nearly five decades later, during the 1980 Winter Games, American speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals, while the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union.
Be an Olympian: Lace up your skates at the Olympic Center’s open-to-the-public rink ($5 admission), or take a ride on the luge and bobsleigh tracks at the nearby Olympic Sports Complex (from $55).
The Olympic Oval
Olympic Pedigree: Dutch skater Yvonne van Gennip won three gold medals and broke two world records during the 1988 Winter Games’ speed skating competitions.
Be an Olympian: Go skating on the rink that bills itself as having the “world’s fastest ice.” You can also sign up for the Oval’s one-on-one program, which offers private speed skating lessons from professional coaches (from $35).