• Berlin
  • Save Berlin: Olympic roulette


Save Berlin: Olympic roulette

It's official, Hamburg gets the bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Although some Berliners are undoubtedly rejoicing, Dan Borden has a few reasons why the Olympics could have done something for the city.

Image for Save Berlin: Olympic roulette
Photo by Michael Barera CC-BY-SA

Dan Borden on why Berlin’s bidding low on 2024.

The 2024 Olympic Games will be a heart-pounding, tear-jerking celebration of the invincible human spirit. They’ll also be a spectacle of excess used by the Earth’s rich and powerful to line their pockets and solidify their grip on power. Love them or hate them, the Games will take place, and Berlin’s leaders want to bring them here. The big question: if we host the 2024 Olympics, will they leave Berlin a better place to live?

Hosting the Olympics is a big gamble. Beijing’s 2008 games reportedly cost $42 billion; Sochi’s 2014 winter games, $51 billion. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off the debt from its 1976 Olympics. Worse than losing cash, Beijing sold its urban soul: 10 square kilometres of centuries-old neighborhoods were bulldozed and over a million residents relocated to make way for its Olympic facilities. Today, its iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, like so many former Olympic venues, sits empty and unloved.

But Berlin’s leaders’ strategy is to bid low, raising the odds of a higher jackpot. Their estimate for a Berlin Olympics: a tiny €2.5 billion. Are they bluffing? Maybe not. They’re betting on a combination of existing sports venues and low-cost temporary structures to break the Olympics bank. These are the aces in their hand:

Olympic Stadium (photo)

Berlin’s premier Olympic venue is inevitably associated with the 1936 games staged by Adolf Hitler as pro-Nazi propaganda, but the stadium actually dates back to Berlin’s first winning Olympic bid, for the 1916 Games. The Deutsches Stadion was finished in 1913, then WWI forced the Games’ cancellation. Twenty years later, architect Albert Speer oversaw construction of a new stadium on top of the old foundations. The iconic building, a Fascist-style take on Rome’s Colosseum, survived WWII intact. It looks deceptively small from the outside – the playing field is set 14m below ground – but holds 74,600 spectators, comparable to the 80,000 at London’s and Beijing’s new stadiums. A major re-do for the 2006 World Cup makes our Olympiastadion both one of the oldest and one of the most modern stadiums in Europe. London’s biggest post-Olympic headache was finding tenants for its new stadium, but Berlin’s has a full dance card of concerts and athletic events: since 1963 it’s played home to local football team Hertha BSC.


In 1993, Berlin competed against four other cities to host the 2000 games – Sydney won. Confident another future Olympics was in the cards, Berlin forged ahead with construction of a world-class venue for swimming and bicycle racing on Landsberger Allee. The Brutalist concrete Europasportpark complex, designed by French architect Dominique Perrault, is still a futuristic testament to Berlin’s post-reunification optimism.

Imaginative reuse

Along with the Max- Schmeling-Halle and O2 World arena, Berlin’s 2024 plans include creative reuse of older buildings: Tempelhof’s former airplane hangars will host boxing and tennis matches. Following London’s lead, other venues will be temporary structures designed for eco-friendly post-use disassembly. To sweeten the deal, the budget includes funding for modern sports facilities in 200 schools.

Olympic Village for all

Critics fear the Olympics will pull resources from Berlin’s real urban crisis, the lack of affordable housing. But housing is part of the deal: athlete dorms on the grounds of the by-then-closed Tegel Airport will morph into 5000 city-owned affordable flats. More importantly, the Games would give Berlin’s city planners the kind of meaty, city-wide Big Idea they’ve lacked since the heady 1990s. Berlin’s new mayor Michael Müller has promised to build 1000-3000 affordable apartments per year for the next decade, but his plans are piecemeal and lack focus. Fitting that construction under the Olympics umbrella would give the project a clear deadline and a global spotlight, ensuring world-class quality.

The odds of an Olympics jackpot are clearly stacked in Berlin’s favour. We already have the lion’s share of venues, hotels and public transport – why not cash in? Still, a majority of risk-adverse Berliners don’t think it’s worth the gamble. It’s true that handing another Olympics to Berlin offers a whole different set of risks. The 1916 games disappeared in the carnage of WWI. Hitler’s 1936 Nazi spectacle? We know how that ended. Maybe the superstitious naysayers have a point. 

Originally published in issue #136, March 2015