A Tale of Two Olympic Parks: London 2012, Berlin 1936

Posted in Olympics, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 8:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

Note to readers:  I want to give a brief apology to those who are still out there following this blog (I know there are a handful of you out there still).  During the past 4 months since the end of my Europe trip, I’ve been juggling a series of professional, personal, and academic priorities, and unfortunately the blog has fallen a bit behind on the list.  I’m attempting to straddle myself firmly back on the blogging wagon this month, and hopefully churn out the rest of the material from Central Europe this past September.  Thanks for sticking around.

Somewhat unpremeditated, my recent trip to Europe ended right where it began, sort of:  in an Olympic Park.  Needing to switch airports in London anyway, I opted to stagger my itinerary, allowing a full morning to explore the London 2012 Olympic Park…Yes, I am indeed well aware there is more to see in London than the Olympic Park, which is why it was the first stop on my trip in 2011. :)

The London Olympics had already finished by the time I hit the town, however the London Paralympics were in full swing, meaning the Olympic Park and most of its facilities were still operational.
Due to obvious security concerns, the Olympic Park was only open to those with tickets to events, which were all completely sold out.  Special “park only” tickets were sold as well for people who just wanted to look inside, peep around, buy t-shirts and mouse pads, etc, however those too were completely sold out as well.  In short, even seeing the park was a high demand ticket.  By some lucky fortune, I struck up conversation with a couple guys from Boston outside the park who gave me an extra ticket to women’s wheelchair basketball, which allowed for entrance into the park.
The only Olympic Parks I had previously seen were the fabulous, modern-marvel setup for Beijing 2008 and that massive aesthetic and financial eyesore left over from Montreal 1976.  London fell somewhere in the middle, probably closer to Beijing.
I spent most of my morning poking around the Olympic Park, scoping out the scene.
Fortunately my flight out of Stansted was late enough I was able to catch the first half of the wheelchair basketball match:  Germany vs. Mexico
The women on the wheelchair basketball teams had a wide range of disabilities including several amputees, and for the most part managed to provide an action-packed athletic showcase on their specially designed basketball-wheelchairs.
In between action, this guy in a pinked striped suit announced various contests and games with the audience along with the backdrop of “iconic” British music.  I’m pretty sure I heard that one Oasis song at least 3 times.
Here’s Team Mexico during a timeout.  Unfortunately I had to leave at halftime to catch my flight to Copenhagen, so I’m not sure who won.
Part of the idea behind having the Olympics in London was to rebuild parts of the historically working class East End, especially the area around Stratford Station near where the Olympic Park was located.  This included the construction of this gigantic pedestrian mall, just outside the gates of the park.
On the one hand, it’s unfair to compare London 2012 to Beijing 2008 since I wasn’t there during the actual London Olympics.  But I will say the whole feel of London 2012 lacked the excitement of the Beijing Olympiad.  When I had spent a few days in London the year before, there was hardly any buzz the impending Olympics other than the giant clock in Trafalgar Square.  In China on the other hand, not to mention Beijing, the entire country had been buzzing, gearing up, and sporting Olympic t-shirts years before the event ever happened.  A lot of this is context and makes for an unfair analogy.  Beijing is the center of a country rapidly rising to the center of the universe for the first time in over 1000 years   London has been at the center of the universe for much of the last 3 centuries.  This was also reflected in the size, scale, and opulence of the Olympic Parks, and in these regards, Beijing was far more grandiose.
76 years earlier, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin.  These were the infamous games were Adolph Hitler was the standing head of state, and much to his chagrin African-American Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals in track and field.  The Berlin Olympic Park is conveniently located along Berlin’s U-Bahn (subway) network, and with 3 days in the German capital to cap off my trip I figured I’d check it out.  (The brightly colored image above is the Olympic U-Bahn station).
I’ve always found two things especially interesting about the Olympic Parks:  1)  For about three weeks, they are the center of the world.  2)  After those three weeks are over, the physical space (and often much of its infrastructure) remains while the event it hosted is relegated to the annals of history.  What is done with Olympic Parks after the Olympics varies from case to case with a wide range of success and failure.
Today much of 1936 Olympic Park remains, leaving one of most beautiful historical sites I saw on my entire trip.  No doubt surpassed technologically by the Bird’s Nest and countless other 20th Century stadiums, looking out from the top deck of the Olympic Stadium it’s easy to imagine what an architectural wonder this must have been during the thick of the Great Depression.  (To be fair, there was a major renovation done at the beginning of the 21st Century)
Today, the Olympic Park is both a tourist attraction as well as a modern sports venue.  The Olympic Stadium still regularly hosts football matches (the European kind), including the World Cups of 1974 and 2006.
a view of the stadium from atop the Olympic Tower
The aquatic center
A view from below the Olympic Tower.  One of the more striking features of the Berlin Olympic Park was the stunning, uniformly grey concrete look of all the buildings which was surprisingly quite aesthetically pleasant.
I didn’t exactly plan it out that way, but starting my trip with the London Olympics, and ending it with a historical trip through the 1936 Games was a fitting way to cap off my trip with  some comparative historical perspectives.  It will be interesting to see what will remain of London 2012 in the decades to come (as I am already hearing that the Beijing Olympic Park has become somewhat of a ghost town).  Berlin seems to have done a fine job at both preserving their park and incorporating it into modern functional use, and maybe London will follow a similar path as well.  Time will tell.

1 Comment »

  1. Edna France said,

    February 3, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Ah glad to see you’re back, and with a post on one of my favorite subjects! Have to admit London lacked the pre-Games fervor of Beijing, but after the Opening Ceremony started and things were underway, London was totally into it and the atmosphere was fantastic. The whole city just seemed happy and people were nice and there was a healthy bit of patriotism, but not-too-over-the-top.

Leave a Comment

/* line below was changed, used to be wp-comments-post.php */