Berlin’s 1936 Berlin Olympic Village is worth a visit. Jesse Owens lived here in Nazi Germany when he tore apart Hitler’s Olympic games.
This piece originally appeared in the Financial Times of 8 July 2006. It carried a sub-heading. “No matter how much hosts of global spectaculars try to engineer greatness, it’s sporting brilliance that counts, says Robert Pimm”.
Olympic Stadium, Berlin – Photo: Robert Pimm
The house where Jesse Owens slept
The house where Jesse Owens slept still stands, its faded walls fringed with lush, uncut grass. Klaus, our guide, shows us a restored bedroom with a photo of the great athlete. Yet the parkland outside, once landscaped and stocked with native German flora and fauna, ran wild long ago. The artificial lake is dry. The café that overlooked it has vanished, along with 120 of the 140 accommodation buildings. In their place loom abandoned Soviet-era apartment blocks, empty windows yawning.
Welcome to the 1936 Berlin Olympic village
The Olympiastadion was built for the 1936 games by architect Werner March, who also designed the Olympic village. The latter’s crumbling remains, like the rest of the infamous pre-war Olympics, seem to mock those who seek to use prestige sporting events for national self-promotion.
Yet national self-promotion will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s World Cup final, which takes place in the German capital’s Olympic stadium. Hosting an Olympics or World Cup can focus the world’s attention on an existing success story but if you don’t have a good story to start with, or if other events hijack the news agenda, even the most carefully orchestrated contest may be remembered for the wrong reasons. In fact, the only reliable way to wow a global sports audience is with – wait for it – outstanding sporting achievement.
During the 2006 World Cup (motto: “A Time to Make Friends”), host country Germany has teemed with football supporters from across the globe. The international press has given rave reviews to the organisation of the event and praised the warm welcome shown to thousands of visiting fans. Fifa president Sepp Blatter has declared this the best World Cup ever. Buoyed by the positive atmosphere, the German public and media hope the finals will give the country’s image a boost.
German views on the World Cup
“I was against Germany staging the World Cup,” says Karin Kutin, a pensioner from Spandau, “because it’s such a palaver. But now I’ve changed my mind. I like all the foreign fans. It’s doing Germany good.”
Ordinary Germans have certainly responded to the influx of visitors with impressive charm and goodwill. But the wave of optimism has uncomfortable echoes of the 1972 Munich Olympics (motto: “The Happy Games”). Then, the German government hoped that the soaring, transparent roof of the Olympic stadium would symbolise a new, open and democratic Germany. Thirty years later, the Munich Olympics are remembered primarily neither for sporting achievements nor architecture but for the failed rescue attempt and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes held hostage by Palestinian terrorists. The stadium itself has been deserted by German football champions Bayern Munich in favour of a new, purpose-built arena outside town.
Wasting the Olympics – or the World Cup
In fact, across the years, it’s hard to identify many Olympic Games or World Cups that brought glory to the places in which they were held. It’s easier to remember Olympics where things went wrong – the financial problems of Montreal in 1976, or the boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.
The World Cup, traditionally staged in several different cities, leaves behind an even more diffuse image. How many people’s perceptions of Italy and the US were transformed by the World Cups of 1990 and 1994? The fact that every German football fan refers to England’s disputed third goal in the 1966 World Cup final as “Das Wembley-Tor” (the Wembley goal) didn’t stop the stadium being demolished in 2003.
There are, nonetheless, two ways in which sporting events can promote a country’s image. One is by using a contest to draw world-wide attention to a region or city that is already a success. No one watching the 1992 Barcelona Olympics could fail to be impressed by the vistas of the city visible behind the divers at the Olympic Pool. Throw in a vibrant Mediterranean metropolis, a couple of landmark architectural features and a catchy official anthem and it became hard to get Barcelona out of your head.
The same effect applied in 2000 in Sydney, helped by friendly locals and a splendid natural setting – even if the Olympic Park at Homebush Bay later came to be criticised as a costly white elephant.
Sporting excellence trumps all
But perhaps the best way to make a big splash at international sporting events isn’t by hosting them at all. It’s by producing sporting personalities who grab the public imagination. Brazil hasn’t hosted a World Cup since 1950, yet the style and success of its winning teams and players have inspired the world. The same is true on a lesser scale for the Dutch, who have never won or hosted the World Cup. As for the Olympics, one Nadia Comaneci or Jesse Owens is worth a dozen medals won by athletes, however talented, who do not have the spark of charisma that makes watching millions will them on to victory.
On the whole, it’s reassuring that there’s no reliable formula for successful national self-aggrandisement by hosting sports events. It’s too early to say whether the 2006 World Cup will be remembered for the warmth of the German welcome or what flavour the Beijing Olympics (motto: “One World One Dream”) will leave behind in 2008. But I can’t help hoping we’ll remember them mainly for their sporting achievements.
The Hindenburg House
Back at Berlin’s 1936 Olympic village, our guide Klaus reminisces about his visits during the Russian occupation to the Hindenberg House, built as a social centre for the athletes of 1936. He shows us the 1,000-seat theatre and the flaking remnants of Soviet propaganda slogans decorating a wall that, at the time of the 1936 Olympics, displayed a relief of marching German soldiers.
“The decor is a bit run-down, now” he says. “But the basic structure of the building is still sound.” He grins. “It was built for a thousand-year Reich, after all.”
VISITING BERLIN’S 1936 OLYMPIC VILLAGE
Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Village lies 8km beyond the western border of Berlin, in what was until 1990 East Germany. Near an existing complex of barracks, it was designed to be used after the 1936 games as an infantry training school. From 1945 to 1947 it housed German refugees and from 1947 to 1992 was used by the Soviet Army for officers’ quarters and an army sports club.
The Olympic Village is open every day from 10am-4pm until October 31. Entry costs €1. There are daily tours in German at 11am (€4).
To get there by car, take the B5 west out of Berlin for about 15km from the Olympic stadium, until you see signs for the “Olympisches Dorf”. By train, take the RE4 from Bahnhof Zoo to Elstal Station (20 minutes, cost €2.60 each way).
If you would like to have a look at my other writing, my most recent books are: my blackly comic Seven Hotel Stories, hard-hitting Berlin thriller Blood Summit and Corona Crime – a thriller for a world in the grip of coronavirus.