Olympiastadion Berlin: The greatest stadium in the world with the worst reputation

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 26.5.2023.

Olympiastadion Berlin

A strong argument can be made that football stadiums are massive buildings with the most emotional attachment to them. Nests for the culture-creating clubs that often shape cities as much as they shape them. Tens of thousands of people call these structures homes on a weekly basis. Letting their primal and showing their identity like nowhere else. An even stronger argument could be made for saying that Olympiastadion Berlin is the most significant or certainly most well-known stadium. Ever.

Surpassing even the confines of the world's greatest sport it hosts so regularly. Olympiastadion Berlin is as much a football ground as it is a historical monument.

Albeit, one tainted by more sinister grime than of birds' droppings, as it is eternally connected to the most infamous part.

The varied history of Olympiastadion Berlin

Of all the stadiums in the world, all the arenas, the Olympic stadium in Berlin is the best known, as even non-sporting people know of it due to its historical importance.

Construction of Olympiastadion Berlin

This large plot of land in the western part of Berlin was first designated as a place for sports in 1912. Then it was decided that Berlin was going to be the host of the next Olympic games, yet in 1916 World War I was raging across Europe so the games weren't even held.

While the architect that was originally hired for the job, Otto March, didn't get to fulfil his project, he did have an impact on the eventual Olympiastadion.

In 1913 the German Stadium was built on the same spot where the Olympiastadion is today. Otto died during the construction of the stadium that eventually had 11,500 seats and 18,500 standing places.

Namely, it was his son Werner March that was the ultimate architect of the project and he kept one key element of his father's idea.

Otto wanted to dig-in the stadium and place it somewhat in the ground. An Erdstadion. A feature that still holds on to this day, over 100 years from Otto's plans, as the entrance to the modern Olympic stadium is in line with the middle of the terraces.

As the Nazi party came to power in 1933 they decided to make a sports complex in the vicinity, named Reichsportsfeld - or the Empire's sports field.

Werner and his brother Walter first did some work on sites near to the eventual stadium. It was in 1931 that the Summer Olympic Games were given to Germany and the March brothers were hired again.

The broader area immediately west of the stadium known as Maifeld, 112,000 square metres in size, boasting stands for 60,000 people, was designed with parades in mind. In 1937 Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Goebbels held a speech in front of nearly a million people there.

As the project was important for the ruling Nazi party, the famed architect involved with most of their monumental key structures was involved - Albert Speer. The man who was sentenced for 20 years at the Nuremberg trials held talks with Werner March regarding his plans for the stadium. Actually giving the green light on March's ideas.

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00027, Berlin, Lauf deutscher Athletik-Vereine.jpg
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00027 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

Werner's brother Walter was also an architect involved in the work done in the broader Olympic Area of Berlin. Yet he moved to America in 1937 and later worked on the iconic Chrysler Building in New York City.

The construction of the Olympiastadion in Berlin started in 1934 and finished in just two years. A tempo that is unreachable for many clubs in 2023.

Upon completion, the object was 12 metres (39.4 feet) below ground level and could hold 110,000 spectators!

Its crowning moment, the event for which it was made, happened in 1936 and is connected to the tale of Nazis more than that of sports. As the structure remained in its initial form even after the later renovations, in both 1974 and early 2000s, the modern ground can quickly remind you of the black and white image of the German high command watching the games here.

The spectacular structure Survived the World War II bombing of Berlin done by the Alies, as well as the artillery onslaught of the Soviets. It didn't even endure any major damage while the Red Army were capturing the city in 1945, only machine gun fire showered it.

Yet, the adjacent 77-metre tall bell tower was lit on fire afterwards. In peacetime, British engineers sent the giant bell crashing down with a controlled demolition of the compromised tower. Since then, the tower has been renewed, yet the bell stays on the ground level as a monument. With the ability to sound off lost in the fire and the fall.

Not surprising, considering it was used as a target for anti-tank ammunition practice by the Allied troops using the large park as their staging area.

Post-War Period of the Olympiastadion Berlin

While the Allied troops being in Berlin seems long gone now, in the era when cameras had no ability to capture colours, the British withdrew from the Olympiapark Berlin only in 1994! Using the supplementary facilities the March brothers designed to their liking.

While the stadium saw work done on it in 1974 for the World Cup, covering the terraces partially, its least secure years followed. More so than in World War 2, yes.

As Germany was united after the breakage of the Berlin wall in 1989, parts of the society were itching to distance themselves from their ugly past. For many, that meant destroying the symbols of Nazi Germany, and Olympiastadion was seen as one.

Two major ideas were to simply crumble the beautiful limestone structure and build a new stadium in its place. Probably with modern architecture, one that would seem less imperialistic, arrogant even. Unlike the fortress-like rows of stone that is the Olympiastadion Berlin.

While the other idea is even more radical. As some believed that the stadium should be left to ruin, for the agent of its demise not to be wrecking balls or dynamite, just time. As to mimic the monument of the empire the Nazis were trying to mimic - Rome's Colosseum.

Yet, smarter minds prevailed, ones appreciating the rare beauty of the ground and it was decided that the stadium was going to be renovated.

An event caused the decision, as Germany got the organization of the 2006 World Cup. Eventually, the stadium was even the setting for the crowning moment of the tournament - the final.

Olympiastadion Berlin rennovation

The 1974 World Cup renovation was simple, it added the roof over parts of the terrace. While in 1962 the bell tower was reconstructed under the guidance of Werner March himself.

While the modern WC required a far bigger engineering and architectural endeavour.

The contract cost for the renovation of the Olympiastadion Berlin was set at €242,000,000! The Augsburg-based Walter Bau-AG company was to do the work and was awarded 37,45% of the new stadium management company. The same percentage went to Hertha Berlin, while the rest 25.1% stayed with the state of Berlin.

Even though the stadium was already dug up in the ground and the fans would enter the viewing area on top of the first of the two levels, the decision was to dig deeper!

With the goal of crafting a better atmosphere for football, usually dampened by the track and field area, the playing field was lowered by 2.65 metres (8.7 ft). Around 90,000 cubic metres (3,200,000 cu ft) of sand was excavated. The lower tier of seats in the stadium was demolished and rebuilt at a completely different angle.

Perhaps more impressive than anything, the renovation was carried out without closing the stadium! Hertha played the Bundesliga here, the annual German Cup final too. Even the NFL-Europe team Berlin Thunder continued playing throughout the renovations.

A total of 55,000 seats for the period of reconstruction was contractually promised by the contractors. While the DFB Pokal finals saw to 70,000 people!

Even the bell tower was renovated with the cost of €7,000,000 as the glass elevator now takes the public to the panorama view up top.

The roof was extended and was made up of transparent panels that allow sunlight to fall on the grass. While the track and field area was painted in blue to pay homage to the football club using the Olympic stadium as the home - Hertha Berlin.

While Hertha has the most imposing stadium in Europe and possibly the world, even when it's not full, the club has a love-hate relationship with the ground.

In 2017, the Bundesliga side formed an official plea to remove the track and field area in order to make it more of a football stadium. A request that met the sound resolve of the athletics community, even helped by figures from outside Germany like Usain Bolt that broke sprinting world records on the blue ground.

The key Olympiastadion Berlin Events

While there have been truly countless events at Germany's main stadium - regardless of how reluctant they are to admit this fact - ranging from sporting, musical, but also others like health and kid-aimed. Yet three events stand out.

Olympiastadion Berlin and the Olympic Games 1936

Gold medals winners of 1936
Memorial list of gold medals winners of 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

The event for which the stadium was built. Yet one that sticks to it like spat-out bubble gum, not a medal. Because it was planned to be a peacetime victory for Germany and the Nazi Party. Celebrating their ideals and beliefs through triumph.

Lasting for 16 days at the start of August 1936, the Olympiastadion Berlin Olympic Games saw a total of 3,956 athletes, representing 49 nations. With 328 women competing in the games also.

These games at the Olympiastadion Berlin are usually mentioned in the context of the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens winning four gold medals. Hence humiliating the Aryan-race first ideology of Hitler in front of him. Yet the secret or at least uncomfortable truth is that Germany did win the medals race.

Germany had 33 gold medals total, 26 silver, and 30 bronze ones.

Followed by the USA with 24 gold, 29 silver, and 21 bronze.

Hungary was third with 10 gold medals, one silver, and five bronze.

The swastika flags and the obsession of the German party with symbolism was shown throughout the city and the Olympic areas. While the ruling party did call for a halt of anti-semitism during the games, the words of unjust treatment of the Jewish population did spread due to the visitors.

Yet, it would be a disservice for the athletes of the XI Olympic Games to just focus on the Nazi aspect of the event.

While the Olympic flame as a concept was used before, the 1936 Olympic Games were the first ones that utilized the tour of the Olympic torch. Starting from the Olympia in Greece, and being carried over for 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) via a marathon through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany.

It was the first time that the games were televised while radio transmission occurred in 28 languages.

1974 FIFA World Cup at the Olympiastadion Berlin

The World Cup 1974 was a big one for Germany, as it was a both point of pride and rejuvenation for the public with the broader acceptance of the country back into the international society. Yet, it was also a sore one, as the divided nation was placed in the same group.

The Group A of the 1974 World Cup was consisted of Australia, Chile, and then East Germany and West Germany. Perhaps too much for the starkly divided Berlin, the game between two sides of the country were played in Hamburg.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-N0618-0044, Fußball-WM, DDR - Chile 1-1.jpg
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0618-0044 / Mittelstädt, Rainer / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

But three matches were played in the group, with wildly different attendence records. The West Germany game against Chile was seen by 81,100 people. The South American's side clash with East Germany was viewed by 28,300 people. While Australia and Chile faced in front of 17,400 people.

Even though the Olympiastadion in West Berlin had by far the biggest capacity - at 86,000 people, no games in the knockout stages were played in it.

2006 FIFA World Cup at the Olympiastadion Berlin

The 2006 World Cup didn't see the Olympiastadion be designated to a particulal group, with four matches in the first stage played here. With one quarter-final match reserved for Berlin but also the grand final.

All matches bar the final were played at full capacity of 72,000!

In the group stage, Brazil defeated Croatia here, Sweden got Paraguay, and Ukraine won against Tunisia. All with the score of 1:0. The only side that was more efficient was Germany, defeating Ecuador 3:0.

Germany played another game at the Olympiastadion, drawing 1:1 against Argentina in the quarter-finals before the penalties took them to the semis.

Yet, the eventual winners Italy defeated the home side 2:0 in extra time to succumb France in the finals via penalties. It was the famed Zinedine Zidane v Marco Materazzi duel that happened here, with Fabio Grosso scoring the final penalty in the shootout.

2015 UEFA Champions League Final at the Olympiastadion Berlin

Somewhat surprisingly, only one Champions League final has been held at Berlin's largest stadium. It was in 2015 when Juventus and Barcelona clashed.

Juventus vs Barcelona
UEFA Champions League Final between Juventus Torino and FC Barcelona at Olympiastadion

The Italian side won against Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, and Real Madrid in the knockout stages to reach the final match. While Barca had an even tougher road defeating Machester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and Bayern Munich. Leaving the German team of playing in their home country, but in a hostile city, for the trophy in ruins of the semis.

Ivan Rakitić opened the scoring in the first half, before Alvaro Morata equalized for the Turin Old Lady in the second part of the game. Yet Luis Suarez in the 68th minute, and then Neymar in stoppage time set the final score - 3:1 for Barcelona. Winning their fifth big-eared trophy and completing a second treble with 70,442 people present.

However, the Olympiastadion Berlin already has a major event scheduled, as the Euros 2024 final will be held at this iconic stadium.

Olympiastadion Berlin and Hertha Berlin

Bundesliga as we know it now was formed in 1963 and the Hertha Berlin, the capital city's biggest club, was invited into the new league as the reigning champion of the city. It is then when the club moved away from their former stadium called the Plumpe. Officially known as Stadium at the Gesundbrunnen, a name of the neighbourhood.

Now destroyed, the 35,239 spectators welcoming stadium was over 10 kilometres away from the current home of Hertha Berlin.

Even though the new Olympiastadion Berlin has been a five-star arena since it reopened - the highest rated stadium by UEFA's count - Hertha Berlin isn't too keen on it. So much so that there isn't even a page dedicated to Hertha's current home on the official club website.

That is so because the club is looking to build a new stadium. As ludicriously as it sounds - right next to the Olympiastadion Berlin, in the broader Olympiapark area.

This monumental sporting area is also the location of Hertha's training centre - Schenckendorffplatz. Unlike for many other clubs across Europe who have their practice homes completely separate from the stadium and often outside the city.

The main reasoning for this is cited as Hertha being the only Bundesliga club that doesn't have a football-specific stadium. Which isn't convincing anyone.

Particularly the people who rejected Hertha's request to make the ground football-specific and eradicate the track and field area around the pitch.

A better reason that Hertha has is that the stadium is far too big for them it seems. While the rare European games see the full capacity of the Olympiastadion Berlin filled, the league games are a different story.

In a league where the fans of other teams are patiently waiting for any rare available tickets, Hertha often struggles with reaching 70% fill rate.

So the club is hoping to finish a 55,000 seater just 200 metres from the stadium that many clubs would die to have.

Yet, as it seems unlikely that the city will allow the largely green and historic area to get a modern stadium with contemporary, unfitting architecture, the club is also looking into the Brandenburg Park location. Well outside the city. Some 23 kilometres from the current stadium and in deep south Berlin, near the autobahn.

Making the situation even more complicated is Hertha’s relegation from the Bundesliga in 2023. Despite heavy investments received by the club. Money that has been a source of controversy in Germany as the fans of other clubs - bar RB Leipzig - religiously adhere to the no-ownership clause in the country’s football laws. These laws state that no company or person can hold more than 50% of the stake at the club. A rule that they thought was broken in Berlin with Hertha.

Yet the contract Hertha has with the stadium expires in 2025 and the goal was to finish the stadium by then. Now, however, the goal seems highly unlikely even at a later date.

Olympiastadion Berlin facts

While the position of the Olympiastadion might seem too far for when you're visiting Berlin, it's worth noting that Germany's capital has a very developed subway system. With 175 stations spread across nine lines. An Olympia-Stadion U-Bahn (German phrase for subway) is located 600 metres from the stadium.

While the suburban train line S-Bahn, also has a station even nearer.

That being said, there are great hotels in the vicinity of the stadium and the whole area is a sporting and ecological haven.

But yes, the Olympiastadion is in fact far away from the city centre. It's located nine kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall memorial is over 10 kilometres away as the bird flies.

Of the sights, the closest one is Charlottenburg Palace, which is again 3.58 kilometres away, in a straight line.

Directly to the south of the complex is the Grunewald forest, at Grunewald At 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) it is the largest green area in the city of Berlin. For those who have a harder time comprehending hectares or acres, the straight line from the south-western to the north-eastern edge of the forrest stretches over nine kilometres.

While Hertha's closest rivals, Union Berlin, aren't even that close, with 23 kilometres between the Olympiastadion Berlin and their stadium Stadion An der Alten Försterei. Which is translated as the Stadium at the old forester's house. In name, almost fitting better to a brothers' Grim fairytale than the Bundesliga.

Of course, the dominant feature of the stadium is the Marathon Gate or Marathontor in German - the gap left in the stadium that is aligned with the tower in front of it! A place where the Olympic flame was burning during the Olympics.

This element, alongside the large, uniformed courtyard in front, matches the light brownish-greyish colour of the stadium made out of cut Franconian shell limestone.

Olympiastadion Berlin construction facts

- The circumference of the round stadium is approximately 803 metres.
- The height of the stadium is 21.26 metres.
- The pitch is 15 metres below ground level.
- There are 132 outside pillars that match three sets of two towers surrounding the stadium. As well as the bigger Bell Tower.
- Width of the Olympiastadion Berlin north-south is 230,73 metres.
- Length of the Olympiastadion Berlin west-east is 304.26 metres.
- A sound system of over 150,000 watts was integrated into the roof.
- Three video walls were completed in June 2018. Two with the size of 12m x 6,8m, and one at 15,6m x 8,8m dimensions.
- 24 food kiosks indoors and one restaurant with 12 food kiosks in the outer area alongside a minimum of 12 mobile food trucks.
- There are eight different tours available for tourists.


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