It started with a simple couple of trips to the football this weekend. Two grounds, two different parts of the city, miles apart. Berlin is such a weird mix of contradictions. Always has been. Take the situation where there is too many of everything. Too many major train stations, zoos, middle-class mothers taking up the whole pavement – and all because of the unique history of a city that has dealt with more shit in the last hundred years than Knut the polar bear’s cleaner.
There are also two sport forums. When I first heard about these places, I immediately imagined a massive courtyard where people congregate and argue over whether Felix Magath has gone mad and Mauro Camoranesi is past it (he has and he is, by the way). These, I presumed, were the forerunners of today’s sport forums, where anonymous imbeciles argue like old ladies about the minutiae of our football teams and become embroiled in pointless and interminable political discussions when they should be getting on with the work they are presumably being paid to do.
These forums I have now quietly become addicted to. They are a waste of time and the bain of my life. Fortunately the ones in Berlin are different: huge tracts of land given over to the development of sport in the city, erected under very different circumstances, and used to project different ideals. In Hohenschönhausen, the DDR used a 55-hectare site to develop Europe’s largest such project. It had facilities for athletics of all kinds – cycling, skating and football – through which the regime would show the world what could be achieved through socialism. And achieve they did. The Sportforum’s Olympic legacy will remain in the record books, tainted though it is by the spectres of a doping programme which was staggering in its scope. I was there to see that other spectre of the DDR, Dynamo Berlin, whose grounds, although able to hold 12,000 people, are dwarfed by the scale of the expanses around it. There’s nothing like it, outside of Hackney Marshes, that I have seen in England, and to this day it is teeming with footballers young and old, and runners and cyclists. If London really wants to create a “legacy” of sport, then it could do well to take a look at the Sportforum.
Naturally, the DDR was not the first regime to realise sport’s power as a political means. In Berlin, a classic and obvious example is the 1936 Olympics. A showcase not necessarily of the Nazis’ sporting prowess (although they wouldn’t have been expecting to have quite the humiliation that Jesse Owens landed on them), but certainly of the might and prowess of the nation in front of a watching world. But the original use of those particular grounds for sport first came about years earlier. When he laid the foundation stone for the other Sportforum in the west in 1920, Hindenberg exhorted the German youth to use it to become “loyal, united, strong and hard”. One can only presume that the double entendre was not intended, though looking at the place now it does raise a smile. Homoerotic ain’t the word. Past the golden eagles on the ever-present columns and into one of the buildings you find a huge statue of a naked man, no attempt being made to hide his shame (not that he has much to be ashamed of, it has to be said). In the cavernous interiors, there are huge Olympian pictures on the walls. I’m sure the Fuhrer approved heartily.
Originally, as well as the more obvious pursuits, the facilities that surround the Olympic Stadium were a base for mass “Turnen” sessions: the particularly German form of gymnastics that resembles nothing so much as a huge demonstration of organised pointing. Competition, you see, being a pointless English obsession which the Prussians disdained when thinking in terms of forging the new rulers of the world. Turnen was championed by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, whose name still adorns the stadium in Mauerpark (and who would presumably be none too chuffed about the availability of cheap dope in the former base for his mass exhibitions, Hasenheide).
Jahn’s sport was a tool to teach discipline, and therefore to teach the next generation the particular self-control that their class would rely on in hard times. John Mander says in his masterful history of Berlin that the “Turner (athletes) had declared war on every kind of softness; only the simplest form of body-building food was permitted, and every sort of spirits, cakes and sweetmeats was vigorously banned…” (as if they would do anything unvigorously). For a right thinking Turner, the world could be divided into two classes: the “Turnern” and “pastry cooks”, the implication being that pastry cooks were French and flouncy. Not real men.
These ideas are very similar to those in the Victorian public schools that began the English obsession with the codifying of organised sport. This was necessary, not just to prepare one young for a lifetime in the service of Queen and Country, but also to eradicate a more insidious danger closer to home. What David Winner (in his brilliant, Those Feet: An Intimate History Of English Football) quotes Alfred Dyer as calling “this horrible thing done in secrecy”. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the fear of wanking that has driven the creation of our favourite pastimes (and the destruction of others apparently). The old purity campaigner advised that one could save oneself, though: “Ride a tricycle, play cricket, skate, chop wood, take bodily exercise of some kind and retire to bed physically tired.”
Surrounded by huge naked statues, friezes of wrestlers and with the words of Hindenberg in my mind (“loyal, united, strong and hard”), I tried to smother my tittering. Sport is pretty useful,I thought, it can be used for lots of things. And I only came to watch the football.