The tram dropped us in front of the Sporthalle, where a couple of people stood at the top of the steps, waiting in the sunshine for a moment longer before heading in to pay admittance to a cheerful women sitting behind a trestle table just inside the front door. From inside we could hear the sound of spectators – cheers and drums and whistles – but there was no clue to what kind of event was taking place. We headed around the side of the hall, where weeds grow through the paving stones and coaches were parked in lines in the sunshine, but it remained a mystery. As we pressed on, deeper into the Sportforum complex, we caught a glimpse of numbered-shirts pressed up against a frosted window. Crossing the car park we heard a sudden outburst of enthusiasm, a “come on lads!” kind of a sound, and then the numbered-shirts were gone, ready to do battle.
The Sportforum complex is one of Berlin’s “Olympic Training Bases” and has facilities for all kinds of different sports. Built in the 1950s, its heyday was during the years of the German Democratic Republic when it was the main training complex for the athletes of the socialist country, whose regime had identified sport as a way of the small nation punching above its weight and who saw its elite athletes as “diplomats in sports gear”. On opening it was the largest such training complex in Europe, and thanks to a system devoted to success – including of course the use of more unhand, chemical techniques – the GDR did indeed win over five hundred medals in the Summer and Winter Olympics combined, a number which has East Germany still standing eighth in the all-time records.
Walking through the complex we found an interesting mix of top-of-the-range facilities with some crumbling, and even abandoned, relics of its GDR glory days. The Sportforum was long home to the Berlin Eisbären – the ice hockey team which has won numerous German championships but who left Hohenschönhausen in 2008 to take up residence in the new O2 World Arena by the Spree. The Junior team still place at the old venue, but the old ticket offices look pretty much abandoned and the arena itself could do with a lick of paint and perhaps a visit from the window cleaners.
One team who has made the Sportforum its home since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and whose fans were gathering on a sunny Sunday in June for the final home game of the season, are BFC Dynamo. Dynamo are currently languishing in the lower leagues of regional German football, but as the black and white photographs occupying the outer wall of their clubhouse reminded us, this was the most successful team in the latter years of the GDR, winning ten consecutive championships between 1979 and 1988. It was a remarkable run of success, soured in the minds of fans of all other teams in East Germany by the fact that Dynamo was the team of the Ministry for State Security (aka the Stasi) and operated under the direct patronage of its head, Erich Mielke. With such help at the top, it was no surprise that the best players found their way to the Dynamo dressing room and that stories of influenced referees and surprisingly long bouts of injury time are legendary. It is also one of the reasons why the team remains disliked even after two decades of decline.
But the Dynamo fans seemed in cheerful mood as they made their way to the ground, anticipating the Berlin Cup Final on Wednesday that, should they win, will give them the chance to compete in the national cup next season. They were there this year as well, but unfortunately the club has attracted some unsavoury elements to their fanbase, and the game earlier in the season was marred by crowd trouble. Dynamo fans would obviously not agree, but the local police are probably hoping that the final is a hurdle too far for the team in burgundy this time around.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Sportforum, people ran and biked, tossed a handball or served a volleyball, rollerbladed and vaulted, and continued the long tradition of healthy activity on the Konrad-Wolf-Straße, which is where we emerged against the slow trickle of Dynamo fans, to continue our slow stroll north to find a shady spot by the lake.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig