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August 1997

Munich's Olympic Park: 25 and still growing

A look into the past and future of Olympic Park in Munich

This year Munich's Olympic Park turns 25, an age at which many athletes are already past their prime. But the complex has only improved over its quarter century, and anticipates a brilliant future. Its trophy shelf overflows: 24 world championships, 11 European sports finals and 65 national championships have been staged there. While the essential athletic flavor remains, the park has also steadily built up a major congress and exhibition center trade and established itself as an international venue for indoor and outdoor concerts, as well as a major tourist attraction.Plans have been drawn up to renovate older arenas and open new attractions that carry the park competitively into the 21st century. The Olympic Park's nearly 3 million square meters of fields and athletic facilities have attracted over 115 million visitors, but that only counts those who officially registered for tours and other events. Including the casual visitors who have visited the park for a beer and Bratwurst or a jog around the lake, the park administrators of Olympiapark GmbH estimate the total number of guests at more than twice that number, around 300 million. Business is integral to the park's success; its current cash turnover runs at DM 45 million, not including the revenues of hotels and restaurants on the periphery. SPITZ ON TOP On August 26, 1972, athletes from all over the world marched in to Munich's Olympic stadium to begin the 20th Summer Olympics. Germans say "spitze" to describe a superlative performance — and the word resounded during the Olympic Games, most often to describe American swimmer Mark Spitz. Previously dubbed "big mouth" because of his unfulfilled boasts in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Spitz proved that he had the muscle to back his moxie when he flew home from Munich with seven gold medals. And not just his athletic prowess impressed Munich: labeled by many female fans as an aquatic Omar Sharif because of his dark good looks, Spitz stole even more hearts than titles. At the recent Olympic Park anniversary festivities, Spitz, his mustache gone and his wavy hair now graying,recalls his victories and flashes his famous smile. "Everything is still very familiar," Spitz remarks. "Of course I've lost touch with some of the friends I made here, but I've been to Munich many times since '72." He points to a model of the complex and to the location of the room he'd stayed in as a competitor. "I stopped at the apartment recently to have a look. When I introduced myself, you should have seen the faces of the people living there" he says. "They just couldn't believe it." But Spitz wasn't the season's only highlight. Russia's Ludmilla Turischeva dominated the women's gymnastics that summer, but it was her younger rival, 17-year-old Olga Korbut from Minsk, who fascinated the public. Although Turischeva won more medals, the diminutive Korbut stole the limelight. And even the splendid performance by U.S. gymnast Kathy Rigby did not bring the U.S. team close to securing a medal. Munich-born American Frank Shorter won the men's marathon, and later declared that Weißbier was the best post-race drink he'd ever tried. City officials rightfully hailed the Games as the "crowning glory" of Munich's postwar rehabilitation. "THE GAMES MUST GO ON" But the legacy of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games is a mixed one, blending tragedy and victory under one expansive roof. In the early morning hours of September 5, Palestinian terrorists scaled a fence surrounding the athletes' quarters in the Olympic Village and broke into the Israeli team's apartment, seizing eleven athletes; two were murdered immediately. The hostage-takers demanded Israel's release of 200 Palestine prisoners and, for themselves, an airplane to escape. Television images of masked terrorists flashed around the world, and the Games were halted. Tragically, within hours, the remaining nine captives were dead, together with five terrorists and a member of the German police. A failed attempt to free the athletes at an airfield outside the city limits unleashed the bloodbath, and the "Munich Massacre" became the Olympic Park's saddest day. Public debate ensued over the park's security and the Games' fate. At the official mourning ceremony the next day, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage delivered the message loud and clear: "The games must go on," he said. At the apartment block that housed the Israelis, a memorial stone tablet engraved with the names of the athletes stands as a silent tribute to the victims; people still place fresh flowers at its base. It took courage and determination to overcome the past and plan for the future, but that was the very foundation on which the Olympic Park was built. THAT'S A STADIUM? After the Games, Munich's populace benefitted from the numerous sports arenas, including a stadium, performance hall, ice skating and swimming facilities. The architecture still garners praise as a miracle of modern engineering. It's weird, or brilliant, depending on your perspective. From a distance it resembles a desert caravan stopping for the night on Munich's edge. From up close, it looks like a billowing plastic canopy, and its dimensions are staggering. Chief architect Günther Behnisch designed it starting in 1965. Experts estimate that its area of the of fiberglass roof could cover Munich's Königs-platz three times over, and still have a bit to spare. Hundreds of kilometers of cable and thousands of knots comprise the spidery network that tie the tent-like structure to the ground. Designers did not originally plan to have a transparent roof. It was modified to mollify the television companies who wanted to minimize the contrasts of light and shadow in the complex; they insisted that a translucent fiberglass shell facilitated color TV transmissions. Today the stadium's technology still makes it a popular venue among media for high profile sports. It is the home of Munich's first-league soccer clubs FC Bayern and TSV 1860 and has hosted hundreds of international sporting competitions and other events ranging from the solemnity of a Papal blessing to open-air rock concerts. To keep the park fit for its calendar of events, its management is initiating important renovations this year. Most popular among them is an addition to the open-air tribune where hardy spectators have braved Munich weather to follow their favorite sports: it will finally get a roof of its own. The city's past and present meet in the hills of the Olympic Park, which were created from rubble removed from central Munich after World War II. By hosting the Games, Munich created a blueprint for the entire city; its role as an Olympic showcase was only part of the master plan: the downtown pedestrian zone was inagurated just in time, and the extensive municipal U-Bahn network started as a limited facility designed to carry tourists and spectators to the Games. In the years preceding the Olympics, the city increased its network of streets twenty-fold and raced to finish tunnels and overpasses on its main ring road in time. And the Olympic Village, with its shops, cinemas, and cafés, is now home to thousands. POWER TOWER At its conception in 1965 the Olympia Tower was the tallest building in Germany. It was originally planned independently of the Olympic Park, and took three years to build. Today it stands nearly 300 meters above the city and is a principal tourist attraction, offering a stunning panoramic view of the Bavarian capital.The colossus receives visitors onto its covered viewing station, and if the elevator ride up doesn't get the vertigo going, the tower's windswept platform will. A revolving restaurant on the next level is enclosed in amber-shaded glass, and provides a glamorous if disorienting dining spot. Numerous guests have finished dining only to discover that their coats have disappeared. But there is no documented problem with theft in the tower. A seasoned staff member points out politely that the coats are exactly where the guests left them when they came in. It is the diners themselves who revolve almost imperceptibly away from their point of entry, and their belongings. THAT'S THE SPIRIT The Olympiapark GmbH has started installing a major new attraction: an "Olympic Spirit Center" that will be housed in what used to be the velodrome, a venue for cycling events. It is the first of a chain of worldwide "Spirit" centers, or Olympic theme parks, endorsed by the International Olympic Committee. Work started in February this year, and if all goes according to plan, the center will open in September 1998, offering spectators multimedia displays and simulators. In five separate sports "arenas" visitors can experience the sensations of different sports and test their athletic skills in an adventure-park atmosphere. Although the attraction is designed to amuse and entertain, its primary goal remains, as IOC Marketing Director Michael Payne says, to preserve and cultivate the "courage and determination" that make up the Olympic spirit. It is appropriate that the first center will open in Munich's Olympic Park, where the commitment to cultivating the Olympic ideal is still very much alive. Festivities and athletic championships mark the park's 25th birthday: highlights include its annual summer festival from August 7 to 24, the Park's open house and birthday celebration on August 10 (with fireworks displays on August 10 and 22). An anniversary exhibition displays original 1972 Olympic memorabilia and larger-than-life posters of great Olympic moments, underscored by original voice and video recordings. A preview of the "Olympic Spirit" is also on display. Located above the ice-skating rink, the show "25 Jahre Olympiapark München mit dem Bayerischen Rundfunk" runs until September 15.

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