Classic Stadiums

Berlin's Olympiastadion: If walls could talk…

General view of a firework
© Getty Images

If the walls of Berlin’s venerable Olympiastadion could talk, people would probably linger for days on end to listen to its stories. In a history spanning almost 80 years, this arena in the German capital has already experienced war, the Olympics, FIFA World Cups™ and countless finals. 

The stadium’s beginnings evoke some dark moments from German’s past. It was built according to architect Werner March’s plans for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. Around 100,000 people packed into the stadium when it first opened, making it one of the largest arenas in the world at that time. The stadium was also intended as a demonstration of the power of the Third Reich in Germany and is one of the few buildings erected by the National Socialists that survived the destruction of war.

Inspired by ancient sporting arenas, the stadium’s oval shape is interrupted by an opening over the Marathon Gate on the western side, providing a clear view of the bell tower beyond. Numerous sculptures and reliefs adorn the passageways of the arena, which is located in an Olympic Park that also includes the Olympic Swimming Stadium. Today, this huge site remains a popular location for major sporting events, open air concerts and much more. 

A Bundesliga record that still standsDuring the Second World War, the stadium’s catacombs served as both an air-raid shelter and as a hidden production facility, but the site suffered only minimal damage during this period.

Hertha BSC have called the Olympiastadion home since the Bundesliga was established back in 1963. In September 1969, the arena played host to the Bundesliga’s biggest ever crowd, as 88,075 spectators gathered to watch Hertha’s match against 1. FC Koln.

Unsurprisingly, the Olympiastadion was one of the host venues for the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany. However, the arena played second fiddle to Munich’s Olympiastadion during the tournament, hosting only three group matches despite being the largest of the World Cup stadiums and having a new partial roof. Nevertheless, both West Germany, who defeated Chile 1-0, and East Germany, who drew with 1-1 with Chile, had the honour of playing in Berlin that summer.

It was almost another 30 years before the ageing site was transformed into a jewel of modern football. Extensive renovation and modernisation work was carried out between 2000 and 2004 in preparation for Germany 2006. This time around, the Olympiastadion hosted four group matches, the quarter-final between Germany and Argentina (which the hosts won 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw) and the Final between Italy and France (won by Italy 5-3 on penalties after another 1-1 stalemate). 

An internationally renowned landmarkDuring the renovation works, the playing surface was lowered and the all-weather running track coloured blue to reflect Hertha BSC’s colours. One of the most important changes was the addition of a roof for all 74,244 seats. Around 242 million euros was spent on updating what is now a 300-metre long, 230-metre wide oval that can now seat 74,500 spectators.

The façade and the arena’s main entrance, the Marathon Gate, are listed monuments and remained unaltered. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) awarded Berlin’s Olympiastadion five-star stadium status as a result of the changes made. 

“The new Berlin Olympiastadion is a state-of-the-art, multifunctional sporting arena for football, athletics and entertainment. There is no doubt that Berlin is now home to not only one of the best stadiums in Europe but also an internationally renowned landmark,” said then German Minister of the Interior Otto Schily.

The German national football team has played more than 30 internationals at the Olympiastadion, including the unforgettable 4-4 World Cup qualifying draw in October 2012, when Germany allowed Sweden to come back from 4-0 down to level the game in injury time. It was the first time in their 104-year history of international matches that Germany had let slip a four-goal advantage.

If walls could talk...The Olympiastadion’s stories are not limited to international football. Since 1985, the DFB Cup final has been held at the arena, and American football team Berlin Thunder played their home games here for several years. In 2009, the stadium played host to the IAAF World Athletics Championships.

The state-of-the-art nature of the stadium’s facilities are demonstrated by the fact that Europe’s two best clubs will meet here in 2015 for the UEFA Champions League final. For the Olympiastadion’s 80-year-old walls, this will certainly be another story they could tell if only they could speak.

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