It is 50 years since Munich hosted the Summer Olympic Games. To this day, thoughts of the summer of 1972 recall weeks of euphoria and optimism – though the time is also defined by dark events. Eager to recreate the feelings and mood of Munich at that time, we got on our bikes to visit the various venues used during the games. Covering around 38 kilometres, our tour took us from the equestrian centre in Riem, past Englischer Garten to Olympiapark, and then on to Dantestadion, Schloss Nymphenburg and finally the regatta course just beyond Oberschleissheim.
When you sit in the stands at the 1972 stadiums, you can almost feel it still: cheering and clapping crowds, the voice of the stadium announcer, athletes like the US swimmer Mark Spitz or the Italian water jumper Klaus Dibiasi, highly concentrated, battling it out to secure a medal. Of course, the German high jumper Ulrike Meyfarth, who at the age of 16 jumped to a completely surprising gold medal, is still unforgotten today.
On many of the stops along our route we really did feel like we were recreating the atmosphere of that special summer. One reason for that is undoubtedly the original texts and pictograms that can still be seen on many buildings and signposts. Their sleek, minimalist design means they look as modern as ever.
Duration: approx. 4 hours, depending on the length of the breaks
Length: approx. 38 km
Download: Bicycle tour as a gpx file
Otl Aicher, Head of Ulm School of Design, implemented this look in the designs for virtually all aspects of the Games – from the uniforms worn by security staff to the posters. Even the paper tablecloths in the athletes’ canteens tied in with the overall design. This comprehensive approach was rather revolutionary at the time, though these days it is widely found in the form of corporate design specifications for large companies.
To this day, we encounter Otl Aicher's pictograms all over the world in almost all areas of daily life.
Actually the pictograms Aicher created for the Munich Games were more than revolutionary: everyone could understand the stylised figure with the circle at its feet – instantly recognisable as a footballer – and the figures that point the way to the toilets, of a woman in a dress and a man.
Aicher wished to make it easier for international guests attending the 1972 Olympic Games to find their way around by means of a huge repertoire of these images – and he evidently succeeded, as we still encounter his pictograms today in virtually all areas of our daily lives.
Now let’s begin the tour: We took the S-Bahn Line 2 from the city centre to Riem and headed to the Galopprennbahn (racecourse) located just behind the train station for our first stop.
Strictly speaking the racecourse was never actually used as a venue during the Games, though it was the setting for the “Olympia-Preis” race, an event created specially in 1972 in honour of the Games, and one which ranked among the top races in Germany with a top prize of 250,000 deutschmarks for the winner. The stands and stables at the racecourse also date from 1972. When we arrived we were surprised to encounter golfers here rather than jockeys, but it turns out that the Munich Riem golf club runs a nine-hole golf course in the middle of the racetrack.
We grabbed a cappuccino at the racecourse café and took a seat on the white-painted stands. We could see that in some spots the floor was thick with discarded betting slips from the last race, which made us we really fancy taking a trip to the races sometime and trying our luck with a bet or two. At big races like the Großer Dallmayr Preis, there can be as many as around 20,000 spectators – and although there’s no pressure to turn heads with an eye-catching hat as there is at Ascot, stepping out in a stylish outfit is all part of the experience.
It’s not far from here to the Olympia-Reitstadion (Olympic Equestrian Centre). Around 23,000 spectators were able to watch from the stands here in 1972 when it was used as a venue for some of the equestrian events, alongside the gardens of Schloss Nymphenburg (palace) where dressage competitions were held. The equestrian events of the modern pentathlon also took place here. It is unfortunately no longer possible to visit the main stand, as it suffered severe damage during a storm and was demolished in 2008.
The stadium was built especially for the Olympic Games, on land that had previously been used as a military riding school during the Second World War. It served as a venue for concerts and sports competitions during the seventies and eighties. Of course, the stadium is still used for equestrian events today: every year on Ascension Day, horse lovers, polo players and riders of all disciplines meet here for the Pferd International – the largest equestrian event in southern Germany.
Our tour continued through a number of pretty residential areas until we reached the city centre, where we cycled through part of Bogenhausen district and past the imposing “Mae West” sculpture on Effnerplatz. The 1972 Summer Olympic Games even left their mark on this area: the neighbouring Arabellapark with its distinctively 1960s architecture and the Mittlere Ring (central ring road) were created as part of the urban development and traffic management works undertaken in preparation for the Olympic Games.
We crossed the Isar river on Montgelasstrasse and arrived at the east side of Englischer Garten. Time for a break; we stopped at the beer garden at the Chinesischer Turm on the immediate left and rewarded ourselves with a classic Bavarian lunch of Radler (shandy), Obazden (cheese spreads), Brezen (pretzel) and Fleischpflanzerl (meatballs).
The archery competitions in 1972 took place on the Werneckwiese grasslands in the Englischer Garten, just south of Kleinhesseloher See lake. Of course, no trace of the event remains today. Nonetheless we made use of the opportunity to admire the spectacular view, from the Monopteros temple, of Old Town's historic spires and towers.
In the absence of a monument here, the video “Archery – a return to the Olympics – Archive 1973” offers a sense of the atmosphere that could be experienced in Englischer Garten during the archery competitions at the time.
Our route to Olympiazentrum took us through Schwabing – a world-renowned neighbourhood that represents the golden era of Munich. This was where the bohemians of the city convened at the start of the 20th century and was also the neighbourhood in which the Blaue Reiter group of artists lived and worked. Impressive old buildings with elaborate art nouveau façades attest to the heyday of the district, which is still home to free spirits and creatives even now. Residents include film-maker Doris Dörrie, writer Patrick Süskind and Kommune-1 founder and member of the Alt-68 social movement Rainer Langhans, among others.
In Schwabing we cycle through the home of Munich's bohemian scene - the members of the Blauer Reiter artists' group also lived and worked here.
On this part of our journey the imposing Olympiaturm (Olympic Tower) functioned as a distant signpost guiding us to the heart of the Games, as it has done since 1972. We could expect to find several other world-renowned sights when we got there, including Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) and Olympiaschwimmhalle (Olympic indoor swimming pool). But first we had to cycle up Olympiaberg, feeling the burn as we went. The view across the entire park, with its lake and sports facilities, was simply breathtaking.
At the top we took a short break and read about how Munich came to be selected as the venue for the Olympic Games. The decision to apply to host the 1972 Summer Games was certainly audacious, particularly in terms of timing: in October 1965 Willi Daume, then President of the National Olympic Committee for Germany (NOK), proposed to the city’s Lord Mayor Hans-Jochen Vogel that the city should enter the running. Immediately recognising an opportunity to modernise the city and present it positively on the international stage with the help of a joyful and tolerant sporting festival, Vogel agreed without further ado.
However, there were only 65 days left to submit the application. On 29 November 1965, it was officially announced that Munich would be bidding to host the Games, and the documents were submitted to the IOC in Lausanne just one month later. Munich was competing against Montreal, Detroit and Madrid.
Buoyed by the same confidence that had convinced them to apply for the Games in the first place, Munich’s representatives appeared before the IOC in Rome in April 1966. Hans-Jochen Vogel’s speech to the IOC was given in English and lasted just six minutes, and then Willi Daume spoke in French for a further two minutes. This was followed by a 13-minute video about the city and the concept – and just like that, Munich was awarded the Games. In total the presentation took up just half of the 45 minutes allotted to each applicant.
Getting Munich ready for the Games over the months that followed was a mammoth task. The city needed to build 15 sports venues, the Olympic Village, press accommodation and facilities, U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn rail connections, roads, paths, bridges, car parks, a bus station and several other facilities. Over 600 architects and engineers and more than 25,000 tradespeople and construction workers from 24 countries worked on the projects.
The short deadline was, of course, a hot topic – thousands of journalists from all over the world visited building sites and repeatedly expressed doubt about whether everything would be ready in time. People still smile wryly at the answer these doubts invariably elicited: “But of course! First of all, 1972 is a leap year so we have whole extra day. And secondly, the official opening of the Games on 26th August isn’t until the afternoon.”
It was also a major financial undertaking, which cost almost two billion deutschmarks in total. The federal and state governments covered the infrastructure costs, and a special series of postage stamps was issued by Deutsche Post in addition to a special collection of commemorative coins and an Olympic lottery. The Glücksspirale weekly lottery was also introduced at that time.
When talking about the 1972 Games who could forget Waldi, the little dachshund mascot? He too was given a particular shape and design precisely defined by Otl Aicher, to prevent the wild proliferation of unofficial souvenirs. Incidentally, the reason “Olympic Waldi” was chosen as the Olympic mascot was because dachshunds were the typical pet for most locals at that time – especially the older residents – and the breed is known for its tenacity and resilience. What’s more, NOK president Willi Daume was also the proud owner of a dachshund.
In fact, the police even took dachshunds instead of Alsatians out on the streets with them in a bid to demonstrate that Munich was worlds away from Third Reich-style intimidating shows of force when it came to security and order.
Ahead of the Games, a competition was held to design an Olympic stadium – which had to be a complete departure from the gargantuan sports facilities of the Nazi era. After securing the contract, Stuttgart architects Günther Behnisch und Partner, with engineer Frei Otto, created an airy, transparent 80,000-square-metre tented roof using acrylic glass, anchors and steel cables.
The investments the city made back then continue to pay dividends for Munich today, as locals and visitors alike frequent the park all year round to cycle, jog, walk or just enjoy a spot of sunbathing. Olympiahalle (Olympic Hall) and Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) are used as concert venues and have hosted performances by international stars and bands including Elton John, Madonna, Ed Sheeran and AC/DC.
From our vantage point atop Olympiaberg we imagined the transformation of what started as a completely flat piece of fallow land and became the natural, green landscape we now know, featuring oases of communication, connecting paths and bridges. The goal was to create a rolling architectural landscape of “mountains, valleys and a lake”.
Though the organisers were absolutely determined that the “friendly Games” should block out Munich’s dark past and the days of the Third Reich, there was still an indirect nod to that era of history – albeit it only in the form of the building material used. Olympiaberg and other hills within the complex were created partly using rubble left behind from bombings during the Second World War.
On our tour we also stopped off at the Olympische Dorf (Olympic Village), where the athletes were housed during the Games. This group of structures is now listed, and the buildings are really a hidden gem for architecture enthusiasts. Made up of bungalows and apartments, some of which have been brightly painted, the village is now used as student accommodation, as was planned from the outset.
This site is also where the terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team took place. A plaque at number 31 Conollystrasse commemorates the incident on 5 September 1972, which began with the taking of hostages and ended with the murder of all eleven Israeli hostages as well as a police officer.
The “Einschnitt” (“incisions”) memorial is a pavilion which houses a multimedia display about the twelve victims and outlines the contemporary historic background to the Olympic attack. The memorial space was opened in 2017, on the 45th anniversary of the atrocities, attended by the hostages’ relatives and the German and Israeli heads of state. It is easy to access from the Olympic Village.
From Olympiasee lake we cycled west along the Nymphenburg-Biederstein to Dantestadion, where track and field athletes could warm up in 1972. Though its almost monumental, rectangular entrance and linear architecture of the stands are reminiscent of Nazi-era buildings, the arena was actually planned in 1914 and opened in 1928. However, the Nazis did later use the 32,000-seat stadium for Hitler Youth parades.
After the Second World War, between 1945 and October 1953, the US army played American football and baseball here. From then until 1972 the stadium was used for mass sports events, football and athletics world championships, and even as training grounds for FC Bayern München at one time. Dantestadion was the only major sports complex in Munich until Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) was built.
The stadium is currently home to the Munich Cowboys and München Rangers American football teams. The Munich Cowboys first men’s team currently plays in the GFL, Germany’s top American football league, as does the U19 youth team since 2020. The renovation and modernisation of the stands here began in 2019.
Next we rode along the Nymphenburg-Biederstein canal to the west side of the city for our next site: Schloss Nymphenburg. We drank in the scenery of the ornate park with its floral bordered lawns, and it was clear why this was chosen as the ideal setting for the Olympic dressage competitions.
Statues and borders in front of the fountain just behind the main palace building were removed to make room for the course as well as some 8,000 spectators. German rider Liselott Linsenhoff became the first woman to win a gold medal in dressage in 1972.
But even before the 1972 Olympics Schloss Nymphenburg had equestrian heritage, as the young horses of the Bavarian Electors were ridden here as far back as the 18th century. The extensive palace park is also well worth a longer visit, by the way. With its picturesque park castles and the contrasting natural wilderness that thrives around them, it is a delightful jewel in the middle of the city.
With a little extra push we made it to the final stop on our cycling tour: the regatta course in Oberschleissheim. Our efforts were rewarded with some stunning landscapes en route, as we travelled first through some small suburban neighbourhoods, then past a few fields and finally past the little lake at Feldmoching.
In summer 1972, rowing and canoe races were held in Oberschleissheim. Like Olympiazentrum, this facility was also harmoniously integrated into the expansive Dachau Moor landscape by means of carefully placed bushes and hedges.
The journey to the regatta course first goes through small suburbs, later past fields and the small Feldmochinger See lake.
The poker-straight 2,000-metre-long expanse of water makes a striking impression as it suddenly comes into view. The pool is fed by the high groundwater level in the area, though this level drops about five metres between the starting and finishing points, so the starting section had to be lowered accordingly. To prevent algal blooms from taking over the pool, the 1972 organisers favoured a natural approach over chemicals, and to this day the water is home to around 5,000 rainbow trout which keep the algae in check.
Around 41,000 spectators cheered on the competitors in the races here during the Olympic Games. The boats were accompanied by a car carrying four commentators who kept fans up-to-date on the action. Nowadays the course is used regularly for national and international competitions and also serves as a training course for the Zentrale Hochschulsport (University Sports Centre).
On the finish line side, we were lucky enough to get a glimpse inside one of the boat houses which currently house around 400 boats. The skiff used by the German team that competed in the 1968 Mexico Olympics is especially impressive, and is now owned by the Technical University of Munich.
Our tour wrapped up very pleasantly, with a burger and a half-litre of beer in a beach-style bar just behind the stands. From there it was a 20-minute cycle to Oberschleissheim S-Bahn station, where we loaded our bikes onto the train and travelled back to the city centre.
If we have piqued your interest, there are still a number of other Olympics venues to visit in and around Munich:
Schwanthaler Höhe: temporary weightlifting hall, wrestling and judo venue and two fencing halls
Hochbrück: shooting range for the pistol shooting element of the modern pentathlon
Poing: off-road course for military competitions with 38,000 spectators
Audi Dome (formerly Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle): Basketball arena with around 6,600 seats
Here you can find this tour for download as a gpx file.
By the way, you can also discover Munich and some of the former Olympic venues on foot: We walked the north-south passage from BMW Welt, just beside Olympiazentrum and through Englischer Garten, then deep into the south of the city as far as Hinterbrühl. We also completed the east-west passage, starting at the Prinzregententheater and passing through Englischer Garten to Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Palace).