When you emerge from the meandering path leading from the U-Bahn, the Olympiastadion cannot fail to invoke some sort of atypical emotion. In my case, a melancholic awe was induced by those magical rings, suspended from two imposing pillars that are somehow in keeping with the political climate, juxtaposed with the huge plaza in front of the stadium where you can imagine the scale of ambition and importance the architects had in mind for this venue.
Originally, the Olympiastadion site was used as a horse racing stadium - the Grunewald track, built in 1909, had a capacity of 40,000. In 1912, the stadium underwent works to convert it into the National Stadium, which opened in 1913.
Plans for stadium improvement had been fermenting in light of the IOC decision to award the 1936 Olympic Games to Berlin. However, after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, more grandiose plans were made for the stadium and its surroundings in recognition of the global attention Germany would receive. The stadium was renamed the Reichssportfeld and was opened in 1936, just before the Olympic Games, with a capacity of 110,000. The hockey pitch and swimming pool areas remain in place to this day, and are preserved as monuments.
After the Olympic Games in 1936, where Hitler's vision was embarrassed by Jesse Owens, the Olympic Stadium was used as hub during World War II. Beneath the stadium lay underground bunkers and it was commonly used as storage for food and wine and as a radio hub.
Post-war ‘denazification’ took place collaboratively with Allied Forces and the West German Government, renaming the stadium as the ‘Olympiastadion’ and reducing the Fuhrerloge, and gradual, evolutionary changes were made until the 1972 Munich Olympics, when the ash track was replaced by a synthetic one and roofs were built over the North and South stands in advance of the 1974 World Cup, hosted by West Germany.
It wasn't until 1994 that British Armed Forces ceased to have a presence around the stadium, in a now unified Berlin and Germany. Stadium improvement was foreseen for an Olympic bid in 1993 for the 2000 Olympic Games. An unsuccessful bid on this occasion was tempered by FIFA awarding the 2006 World Cup to Germany. This catalysed the renovation of the stadium, which took place from 2000 until it was reopened in 2004 as the large, UEFA 5-star, multipurpose stadium it is today.
There were differing opinions on what to do with the stadium: renovate it, let it crumble like the Colosseum or rebuild a brand-new, purpose-built football stadium. Commentators and politicians often talked about 'legacy' for London's Olympic Stadium in 2012 but here is a stadium that has a real legacy and, while part of that is of darker days, its preservation and restoration serves as a timely reminder of that time and, simultaneously, is a true architectural triumph.
The Olympiastadion has been the home of the Hertha BSC (Berliner Sports-Club), who take their name from a blue and white boat that the founders of the club had sailed upon.
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The Olympiastadion has an excellent range of stadium food and drinks, at least by German standards. Cola, Sprite, Fanta and beer (Warsteiner Premium) are all €4.20 per half litre, or €7.50 per litre. A €1 deposit is required for your glass. Some typically German meat-based snacks are reasonably priced, ranging from €3.30 for a Bratwurst (big sausage, little bun) and Hacksteak to €4 for a Currywurst. The kiosks are found both in the ground near the entrance and around the concourse, and are typically no more than 20 metres apart from each other, ensuring that queues remain small.
The Bratwurst is a perfect complement to the excellent beer, both as a flavour partnership and for its alcohol-absorbing qualities. For those less taken by the scrumptiousness of sausages, there are various pickled fish outlets where herring, salmon and seafood are available and pretzels the size of a hubcap come in at €3 euro.
For this match against 1.FC Koln, a sizeable visiting support contributed to an unforgettable atmosphere. There was an edge to this game with both teams riding unexpectedly high in the league. The Koln fans made plenty of noise and made a red and white display immediately prior to kick-off for which they deserve credit. There was virtually no segregation of the fans prior to the match although the away fans were situated at the West End of the stadium, next to the Marathon Gate, where the Olympic Flame once burned.
However, if you like to be in and around a stadium-shaking atmosphere, the Hertha Osttribune is the place to be. Upper tier seats give a depth of view that is especially beneficial due to the running track. Volume levels are well maintained by the roof and, while the occasional pillar supporting it is annoying, it is an acceptable price to pay for the maintenance of character of such a fabulous arena. Football stadia with running tracks can make the fan feel distant from the action and this is certainly the case here, especially behind the goals. That said, at no time do you feel detached from the event itself. The seats are standard plastic fold-down fare and are a neutral grey colour.
While there was a significant amount of jumping and singing in the immediate environs, you would have no fears about bringing kids to any part of the stadium and at no point did the event become scary. A top tip for sitting in the upper tier of the Osttribune would be a pair of sunglasses if attending a match in Winter, as the sun sets behind the Marathon gate and is directly in your line of sight (assuming you're lucky enough to see the sun in Berlin during the winter).
The stadium is situated in the West End of Berlin, between Spandau and Charlottenburg. One has to venture significantly further afield to investigate the area around the stadium as its grounds are vast and there is so much to see in and around the stadium itself. For those coming from central Berlin - which seems an odd concept when no city has ever been more binary in its east/west division - there seems to be no reason to visit this otherwise residential neighbourhood other than to visit the stadium. There are so many varied neighbourhoods in Berlin encompassing a vast range of budgets, amenities and unique characteristics that there is no reason to stay around the stadium itself.
Around the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations there are a few bars and cafés as well as little shops selling food and drink. As part of the stadium ecosystem it provides yet another opportunity for refreshments but not much else. On match days, there are several vendors of sausages, beer and Hertha paraphernalia outside the stadium and these come with the added bonus of having clean toilets immediately adjacent to them. The food and drinks are not much cheaper than in the stadium although it is nice to mill around here with a beer and admire the stadium.
I was warned by a Werder Bremen-supporting friend that Hertha Berlin fans were not a particularly lively bunch; nothing could have been further from the truth. For this match, they were an amplification of everything that makes German football so intriguing. Those denim waistcoats with the club patches stitched onto them, like a Scout uniform, are a timeless classic around the hardcore fan scene all over Germany and many fine examples could be seen being modelled by the Hertha fans. The trend for multiple scarves is also curious; fans tie them around their arms, hang them from their belts and jackets to the extent that they resemble vendors of merchandise. All of this contributes positively to the colour and flavour of the occasion.
It is worth taking your seat well in advance of kick-off at the Olympiastadion as the Hertha fans have some wonderful Pavlovian reactions to seemingly insignificant events, such as the goalkeepers warming up and the announcement of the Hertha XI. Some of the singing is choreographed by an enthusiastic but tuneless lead-singer with a megaphone on a platform with a couple of sidekicks playing the drums in time. However, for all that he is truly awful, the fans react in large numbers to his prompting, ensuring that the Osttribune is sufficiently noisy.
Nur Noch Hause, the club anthem, is to the tune of Rod Stewart's "Sailing" and in all honesty, it didn't float my boat. However, the 'Hupfen,' where the fans sway in opposite directions in alternate rows before pogoing, is truly a fantastic sight, and is performed to the tune of the classic song "Sway." It is worth getting a seat below the screen on the Osttribune just to feel part of it.
The stadium has both a U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (commuter rail) stop within five minutes walk from the stadium. Both stops are named Olympiastadion. The U-Bahn is free with a match day ticket and, coming from Zoologischer Garten on line U2, is a 15 minute journey. The Olympiastadion stop is the last stop for the train so there are no worries about not alighting on time if you daydream.
The Olympischer Platz essentially becomes one large car park for the day in front of the East entrance and there is a car park adjacent to the South entrance. It does appear, however, that the majority of fans use public transport to get to the stadium.
For those going to the match directly from the airport, Tegel Airport is much closer than Schoenfeld (Brandenburg) Airport although most budget airlines use the latter. The train journey coming in from the south-east of the city is fascinating and emotive as the contrasts from East to West can be drawn. Berlin really is a city whose soul is naked, hurting and in need of acceptance and this journey really captures this in picture.
There are two entrances to the stadium although the majority of fans seem to enter the turnstiles at the East entrance. The print-at-home tickets are not easily read by the scanners and the security staff on the day bemoaned the inefficiency of the system. However, after trying two different scanners, I was through.
Upon passing through the turnstiles, you can access anywhere around the stadium and you can wander by the Maifeld and the Olympic Swimming Pool. The concourse on the Oberring (top tier) runs all the way round the circumference of the stadium. This wonderful access, coupled with what feels like an outdoor museum, make this a fabulous venue for the visiting fans who are all too often segregated and herded into a small pen. The toilets, while a little infrequent, are huge and clean although they do employ one of those people who want payment to watch people urinate.
For a ticket in the centre of the Oberring of the Osttribune (behind the goal), I paid €21 euro, ordered online and printed it out at home. The location does prioritise atmosphere over view but nevertheless is fantastic value for money. Hertha Berlin seldom sell out their home games and tickets are usually available on the day of the match. Tickets do range from €15 to be right in the corner up to over €60 euro for a central ticket. The lower limit remains fairly constant whereas the more expensive ticket prices vary as a function of the illustriousness of the opponent.
Add to the package the free return transport to the stadium and the reasonable prices of the food and drink and Hertha Berlin really represents a bargain. Berlin is also a cheaper city in many ways than destinations like Hamburg or Munich, and is less affluent. Therefore, your euro goes that little bit further.
Where else could you go and walk through a monument of perhaps the most infamous Olympic Games? You could spend hours looking at the statues, reading the names of the Olympic Champions at Marathon Gate, or imagining plunging from highboard into the pool at the North side of the stadium. The stadium also has a chapel that is open on match days. This really is the one venue you should arrive at early in order to soak up its unique history before the match.
Stadium tours are available from €7 euro on non-match days which, if Hertha aren't playing when you're in Berlin, is still a bargain. There is a visitor centre at the East entrance offering a multimedia tour into the history of the stadium.
Restorations of older stadiums can sometimes be an uneasy and expensive compromise between maintaining tradition, fitness for purpose and maximising revenue. In this case, I genuinely cannot envisage how a better job could have been done. The Olympiastadion and its surrounding venues within the grounds are like walking through parts of Rome tinged with a little more introspection and a little less glory.
The Olympiastadion is a true National Stadium in its grandiosity and its size as well as being a 21st century venue in its modernity and functionality. Hertha Berlin fans also make attending one of their matches a special occasion and they deserve this stadium.
The foundation for the current Olympiastadion dates back to the late 1890s, when horseracing was very popular and the local ‘Union Klub’ looked for a spot. After years of moving and debate, in 1909 a track was put into place in the area of the stadium, first and foremost making it a designated sports area.
Only 3 years later, in 1912, the construction works for the National Stadion had begun. The design was made by Otto Marchs, the father of Werner Marchs, designer of the late Olympia Stadion.
The stadium was a general sports venue, able to host 11,500 seating spectators and an additional 18,500 standing spots. And, there was a swimming pool stadium, that could host another 3,000 people. Those where pretty big numbers during that time.
In 1921, a new addition to the site was made, with the erection of a two-story building, housing a fencing hall and a gymnasium, quickly turning this area into the “Deutsches Sportforum,” a name that still lasts.
Germany in the late 1920s and beginning of 1930s was in great disarray, also due to the Great Depression, which eventually led to the rise of the infamous dictator Adolf Hitler. Right in that time, in 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 games to Berlin.
As Berlin didn’t have an Olympic size stadium at that time, a new one had to be built or the original National Stadium had to be remodeled. The order to draw a remodeled stadium, was given to the Marchs brothers, Werner and Walter, sons of the former National Stadion architect Otto. After a few first drafts, a big, pompous arena had been drawn out, housing 65,000 spectators.
But just before the building was about to start, Hitler had risen into power and as he wanted the stadium to be part of his legacy, the brothers Marchs were sent back to the drawing table, and eventually came up with “Solution B,” demolishing the old stadium, and making room for a gigantic building, which would tower 13 meters above, and 10 meters below the ground. It had a “Führerloge,” where the leader of Germany could sit and host its most prominent guests. Also, there was more room on the marching “platz” which of course would fit eventual mass gatherings, which were so typical for the leading party in Germany at that time.
The stadium had to be built with savings in mind, because it was still the Great Depression. So the huge mass of excess soil that was created by excavation of the construction pit, was now used as part of the building of the main stand on the west side. The build had to be overseen by someone from the Ministry of Interior, so it would be constructed in line with the views of Imperial Germany. It was behind on schedule all the time and at its highest point, some 2,600 workers were employed to build the venue, which was quickly named the Reichssportfeld.
Construction finished in 1936 and the stadium had its grand opening during the 1936 Olympic Games, in which Germany tried to shine and show its “perfect society.”
After these festivities, the stadium was used as a site for large events, both sports and non-sports related, for example the German Cup final, but also the welcoming of friendly foe ‘Il Duce’ (Mussolini) from Italy.
During the first years of the war, the stadium was used for Youth Games by the Hitlerjugend and Army sports festivals.
From the stadium’s official website:
"The Reichssportfeld had been prepared for war quite early – in the area around the Marathon tunnel, a concrete ceiling and separating walls had been added to expand these underground rooms into a real bunker. At the dawn of the war, the German company Blaupunkt produced primers for anti-aircraft weapons here. In late 1944, the Allied bombardments became increasingly more intense, and the underground facilities of the stadium were prepared as makeshift headquarters for the “Großdeutscher Rundfunk,” Nazi Germany’s national radio network. The administration building north of the Olympischer Platz served as an ammunition depot, other buildings were used for large-scale food and wine storages. The Olympischer Platz was one of ten locations in Berlin, where, on November 12th 1944, Hitler’s last contingents were being sworn in."
After the war, the stadium and its surrounding area had suffered greatly from the bombing. One thing had suffered more than others and after the British troops first occupied the stadium, it ordered for the iconic bell tower (which had basically burned down) to be taken down.
Only 10 years later, much by the effort of Walter Marchs, a new, higher bell tower was erected and a new bell was mounted. After some denazification actions (amongst others the downsizing of the fuhrer loge), the stadium was also renamed to ‘Olympiastadion’. This name still stands today. In 1966 the stadium had gained monumental status, making it hard to tear down.
After more renovations, the old track was reinstalled, being used as a material testing ground for the 1972 Munich Olympics. As for the 1974 World Cup, which was held in West Germany, Berlin’s Olympiastadion was partially roofed, on the two main stands, now covering 26,000 spectators.
After a failed bid for the 2000 Olympic games, eventually in 1998 the Berlin senate decided on a large renovation of the stadium, starting in the early 2000s, as the stadium had been worn out and was in a terrible condition.
The renovation basically gave way to a new lower tier, which led to a lowering of the football ground by 2,65 meters. Also, 74 new skyboxes were installed and in addition, the honorary stand as well as the historic Hall of Honour and Coubertin Hall, based on the requirements of the monument conservation, could be remodelled. The whole remodeling took place during several years, in which the stadium never closed. The annual German Cup final, the home games of Hertha BSC and Berlin Thunder (an NFL Europe team) could take place. Only the IAAF Golden League had to be staged somewhere else.
As per the opening in 2004, the stadium was at its current capacity of 74,649, which consists of 98 loges, 15 boxes and 4.500 business seats. In 2005, it was awarded the 5-star rating by UEFA, making it eligible for Cup Finals, and as a result it will host the 2015 Champions League final. The stadium was also used during the 2006 World Cup, hosting the final game.
The roof-construction in particular is worth mentioning as it’s a tent like roof, the construction has a huge span, and is covering all seats in the house. Especially during night games, the roof lights up and gives an extra nice look and feel to the stadium.
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