We have been to the Olympic Village before, a few kilometres outside of the city limits, built for the athletes and their entourage when they came to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games. It was supposed to be a triumph for Hitler and the National Socialists, who had come to power three years earlier, but it would be remembered for the exploits of a black man from across the ocean. Jesse Owens made the Games his own, with four gold medals, and a recreation of his bedroom stands at the heart of the exhibition – most of which is in the open air.
It is a strange place. Many of the buildings are peeling and crumbling, although some renovation work has been done. There are photographs and information boards to tell you what was once here, although not so many further into the complex, when you stumble across the ruins of some more recent buildings – the remains of the Soviet military base that occupied the site during the GDR years, when this whole area was off limits for anyone without special permission to be here.
We walk around a place built for thousands of athletes and later extended for thousands of Soviet soldiers, and we have it pretty much to ourselves. More people head out this way to visit the huge outlet mall by the Autobahn or the children’s strawberry farm on the other side of the village. Peeling walls and sagging roofs only have an appeal to a certain breed, those who perhaps take pleasure in jogging along the cinder track where a sporting icon once trained, or who see in the abandoned Plattenbauten of the Red Army ruins that speak to an Empire lost as much as any to be found in Athens or Rome.
We head back into the city, to the Glockenturm – the bell tower that stands at the head of the parade ground of the Olympic park, looking out across the swimming pools and the hockey pitches, the training tracks and the Olympic Stadium itself. The complex was built for the 1936 Olympics of course, but history did not stop when Jesse Owens sailed for home to a heroes welcome that included having to take the service elevator to his own celebratory party because of the colour of his skin.
No, despite the problematic legacy of the 1936 Games, the Olympic Stadium and its facilities were rehabilitated following the war. The British Army used it as a base for their zone of occupation, and the stadium was home to the (West) German Cup Final from the middle of the 1980s. There was a facelift in time for the 2006 World Cup, when Zinedine Zidane left his mark on the legend of the sporting venue, as well as on an Italian defenders chest.
But inside the clock tower there is no question as to the origins of this site. The tower was built to include a memorial hall – the Langermarckhalle – dedicated to the German soldiers who died in the First World War. The regimental shields still hang. The patriotic poetry looks down from the brick walls. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive. On the ground floor we watch an information film about how the Nazis used sport in their weaponry of nationalistic appeal, the finest specimens of the master race moving in time across the parade ground before marching off to war. Now, the field in front of the tower is home to cricket in Berlin, and as we emerge from the screening room there are two games in progress outside the glass doors, the majority of players of Indian and Pakistani origin.
From the top of the tower we look down on the cricketers, white ants scurrying across the expanse of green. A wicket falls. A shout from below. The ants gather together, mingling in triumph. We look across the Olympic site, past the stadium itself, majestic at the core. A smaller arena is a hive of activity; a main stand full of souls, blue and white flags waving in the centre circle. Local heroes Hertha BSC are presenting their team for the season, the sound of the players surnames shouted by the fans drifting across to us on the wind.
Up here Berlin is laid out before us as we look down upon the Corbusier House rising up above the trees, built in 1953 as part of the Interbau International Building Exhibition as the city rose from the WWII-ashes, and across to the peeling domes of the former American Listening Station on the top of the Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain). We can see the TV Tower in the distance, the city spreading out from its base in all directions. Behind us are the fields, forests and lakes of Brandenburg. They say that in 1936 you could see the Olympic Village from the top of this tower. Now a hill, built out of a GDR rubbish tip, obscures the view.
A week later and we are back, handing our tickets to an orange-jacketed steward to make our way across the stadium concourse, past the beer stalls and sausage stands, to take our seats for the annual ISTAF athletics meeting. There is something melancholy about this event, that was once part of the Golden- Diamond- Whatever-precious-metal League but has since been downgraded. Thankfully, the German field event gold medalists from London 2012 have stayed loyal and bring some star appeal, although the hammer thrower finds herself beaten by a Polish rival with a new World Record throw embedding itself deep in the green turf.
Still, the crowd are sportingly excited a the opportunity to witness history being made, even if it is by a competitor from across the Oder and not their Berliner heroine, just as the crowds took to the expoits of Jesse Owens all those years ago. Nevertheless, and however impressive the renovations to this stadium have been and all the new stories written over the past eighty years, the crimes of the man who sat at that balcony almost directly across from our seats and those who supported him will mean that this will never be a place of purely sporting distraction… it cannot be. Better, then, to play cricket on the parade grounds in full knowledge of what came before, and cheer the world when they come to run, jump, throw and play. Let that be the legacy.
I have written about a previous visit to the Olympic Village here, on Slow Travel Berlin
Information about the Glockenturm exhibition can be found on their website
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Paul Scraton (Olympic Village) Katrin Schönig (Glockenturm and Olympic Park)