Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Berlin's historic Olympic Stadium is playing its part this week in the staging of the first multi-event European Championships. While Glasgow is hosting aquatics, cycling, golf, gymnastics, rowing and triathlon until August 12, the athletics is about to take place in the cavernous arena originally built for the 1936 Olympics.

Enduringly, those Games conjure the memory of Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter and long jumper whose achievement in winning four gold medals defied the vision of the Games held by the German Führer, Adolf Hitler, as a showpiece for the Nazi Party's racist ideology.

For all the extensive revamps and re-makes of the stadium in recent years, that reverberation, that sense of light and dark, is still a part of this vast sporting edifice.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, the site was a racecourse - indeed, some of the original ticket booths are still in place today. A stadium known as Grunewaldstadion due to its proximity to the Grunewald Forest was built for the 1916 Olympics which never came to pass.

When the International Olympic Committee chose Germany as host of the 1936 Olympics in 1931, it was decided to restore and re-use the stadium already built.

Jesse Owens en-route to long jump gold, one of four he won at the 1936 Olympics ©Getty Images
Jesse Owens en-route to long jump gold, one of four he won at the 1936 Olympics ©Getty Images

But once the Nazis had come to power in 1933 the perception of the Games changed. They were seen as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the supreme might of Germany's power in a sporting and architectural context.

Hitler ordered the construction of a stadium so toweringly huge that it was almost minatory. The resulting design, sunk into the ground and bearing some resemblance to the ancient Roman Colosseum, held 110,000 people.

In keeping with an ideology that would eventually provoke the Second World War, the Nazi Party sought initially to prevent any Jewish competitors taking part. After that stance raised talk of a proposed boycott, the order was modified to preclude German Jews from taking part. However, one such, fencer Helene Mayer, did compete.

Mayer had moved to America and had been stripped of her club membership back home. She was later "invited" back to compete in the Games. Very much the picture of the Aryan ideal of a German woman, she even gave the Nazi salute on the podium after winning silver in the individual foil event.

In later years, the story was told - and not always discouraged by Owens himself - of how Hitler had snubbed him by refusing to shake his hand after his victories, his form of congratulation for German winners.

This was not so. Hitler had indeed shaken hands with all the German victors on the first day of competition, and with the three medal winners in the 10,000 metres, who were all from Finland, his future allies in the Second World War.

But Olympic officials then insisted he acknowledge publicly either all winners or none. Hitler chose the latter course.

Despite the racism of the Nazi regime, with its talk of "black auxiliaries", Owens found the atmosphere in Berlin personally supportive for much of the time. He was cheered by the crowd - "Yesseh Oh-vens, Yesseh Oh-vens" - and mobbed by autograph hunters.

He also received friendship and support from Germany's tall, blue-eyed, blonde Aryan dream of a long jumper, Luz Long. 

When Owens approached his third and final qualifying mark still needing to register a distance long enough to take him into the afternoon's final, Long - who would die on the Eastern front in 1943 - spoke to him and then advised him to move his back to lessen the risk of over-stepping on the take-off board again. Owens did so, duly qualified, and went on to win gold.

Jesse Owens' Olympic achievements are inscribed into the fabric of the Berlin Olympic Stadium ©Getty Images
Jesse Owens' Olympic achievements are inscribed into the fabric of the Berlin Olympic Stadium ©Getty Images

Two years after those momentous Games, the international sporting focus switched back to the Berlin Olympic Stadium as an England football team containing players such as Stanley Matthews, Eddie Hapgood, Cliff Bastin and Len Goulden met a German side whose fortunes were being overseen on the night by Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, and Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda.

In his autobiography, The Way It Was, Matthews writes: "Berlin seemed a city of gaiety, with laughter wafting out from its cafes and bars, but there was an air of menace and foreboding about the place. 

"I've always been deeply suspicious of countries where the image of the leader is forced upon the population and wherever I looked in Berlin there was a poster, a flag or hoarding depicting the face of the Führer."

The legendary son of Stoke recalled popping out of the team hotel in company with no-nonsense Leeds United full-back Bert Sproston and sharing a pot of tea with him in a café when everyone thronged to the door to watch a cavalcade of cars go by. "That was our beloved Führer gracing us with his presence," a patron explained.

Matthews writes: "Bert leaned across the table. 'Stan,' he whispered. 'I'm just a working lad from Leeds. I've not had much of an education. And I know nowt about politics and t'like. All I knows is football. But t'way I see it, yon Hitler feller is an evil little t**t.'"

The atmosphere of the match was memorable.

"All of 110,000 people were crammed into the Olympic Stadium, including Goering and Goebbels, and they roared their approval as the German team took the field," Matthews writes. "If ever men in the cause of sport felt isolated and so very far from their homes, it was the England team that day in Berlin.

"The Olympic Stadium was draped in red, black and white swastikas with a large portrait of Hitler above the stand where the Nazi leaders and dignitaries sat. It seemed every supporter had a small version of the swastika and they held them aloft in a silent show of defiance as the England team ran out."

England's football players will shortly follow the German lead of a Nazi salute before their 1938 match at Berlin's Olympic Stadium ©Getty Images
England's football players will shortly follow the German lead of a Nazi salute before their 1938 match at Berlin's Olympic Stadium ©Getty Images  

As they had prepared for the match in the dressing room, England's players heard from the Football Assocation that they would be expected to reciprocate the Germans' salute of their anthem by giving the Nazi salute to mark that of the hosts.

The players angrily refused - but were ordered to comply, being told it needed "only a spark to set Europe alight". They complied - but all turned their heads to the left to look at two isolated England supporters waving a union flag. England won 4-2, one of their goals a 35-yard volley from West Ham's Goulden. "Let them salute that one," he shouted, his words clearly audible in the hushed stadium.

The European Athletics Championships are due to feature some of the world's leading performers, such as France's world pole vault record holder Renaud Lavillenie and Sweden's world junior pole vault record holder Armand Duplantis. Double women's world high jump champion Mariya Lasitskene of Russia, Norway's world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm and Germany's world and Olympic champions in the javelin, respectively Johannes Vetter and Thomas Rohler, will also be there.

But the event will have its work cut out to match some of the epic performances that have taken place within this giant bowl of an arena over the last 82 years. The 1936 Olympics remain the high point, but there have been other peaks.

Nine years ago Berlin hosted one of the International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) most memorable World Championships, at which Jamaica's Usain Bolt set the current world 100 and 200m records of 9.58sec and 19.19 respectively.

Usain Bolt reached the high point of his career at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt reached the high point of his career at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin ©Getty Images  

Those Championships also produced a startling performance from South Africa's 18-year-old Caster Semenya, whose victory in the women's 800m gave rise to a controversy over hyperandrogenism which is being vigorously renewed this year following her country's decision to appeal against impending IAAF legislation regarding the monitoring of testosterone levels in female athletes.

The stadium's footballing strand, too, has reached the summit of possibilities - it hosted group matches for the 1974 FIFA World Cup finals, with both West and East Germany playing on its turf. And when the World Cup finals returned in 2006, it hosted group matches, an epic quarter-final in which Germany beat Argentina on penalties, and the final itself, where Italy took the Cup on penalties after drawing 1-1 with France.

The arena's main footballing use in the post-war era has involved Hertha Berlin, who have played there since 1963.

In that time Hertha's fortunes have fluctuated, but they earned promotion to Germany's top level of the Bundesliga in 2013 and have played UEFA Champions League and Europa League football. They finished 10th in the 2017-2018 season.

During their tenure the stadium has undergone extensive renovations in 1974 and between 2000 and 2004, as a precursor to the hosted World Cups.

In 1998, Berliners debated the destiny of the Olympiastadion in light of the legacy it represented for Germany. Some wanted to tear the stadium down and build a new one from scratch, while others favoured letting it slowly crumble "like the Colosseum in Rome". Finally, it was decided to renovate the Olympiastadion.

Over the last 30 years open air concerts have taken place there by acts including the Rolling Stones, U2, Michael Jackson, Guns N' Roses, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.

The stadium has also hosted American Football - five American Bowls between 1990 and 1994 were staged there, and the arena was also home to Berlin Thunder, in NFL Europa, from 2003 until 2007. Then, the league's operator, the US National Football League, closed down the competition.

In the 2006 World Cup final, the French had kept the score level despite having lost the services of key midfielder Zinedine Zidane near the end of extra time when he was sent off for a head-butt to the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi, whose header had equalised Zidane's early penalty.

Zidane had clearly been provoked by something Materazi said, which later interviews revealed may have been an insult to his sister. Zidane said, after what was his last match as a professional, that he would "rather die than apologise".

In 2011 the stadium hosted Germany's opening match in the FIFA Women's World Cup finals.

Four years later the UEFA Champions League final was played there, with Barcelona taking the trophy for a fifth time with a 3-1 win over Juventus.  

The athletics link to the stadium has been a strong and unbroken one since Owens electrified its track and field in 1936, thanks to the Internationales Stadionfest meeting, first held in 1921 and an annual fixture, since 1937, at the arena that hosted the Olympic athletics.

So far in the stadium, this meeting - which since 2010 has been part of the IAAF World Challenge meetings, the second tier of global one-day athletics events - has produced 19 world records.

Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt at the Olympic Stadium in the 2006 World Cup Final ©Getty Images
Zinedine Zidane's infamous headbutt at the Olympic Stadium in the 2006 World Cup Final ©Getty Images  

The first was a women's 100m mark of 11.60 by Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland, Olympic silver medallist a year earlier. She later died in 1980 after being caught in crossfire during an armed robbery in a Cleveland parking lot and was discovered to have both male and female sexual characteristics.

The first post-war world record came in 1970 from Australia's Kerry O'Brien, who ran the 3,000m steeplechase in 8min 22sec. Five years later two world records went at the same meeting as Steve Williams of the United States ran the 100m in 9.90, and France's Guy Drut, who would be Olympic champion within a year, set a 110m hurdles mark of 13.00.

On August 26, 1977, East Germany's Rosemarie Ackermann equalled her own women's high jump world record of 1.97m before becoming the first woman to clear 2.00.

In 1985, Morocco's Said Aouta lowered the world 1,500m record to 3:29.46, and another landmark middle distance record emerged in 2010 as Kenya's David Rudisha lowered the 800m world record of 1:41.11 set by Wilson Kipketer in 1997 as he clocked 1:41.09.

The world records that resonate most strongly in connection with Berlin, however, remain those set by Bolt - at what, it is now clear, was the dizzying height of his career - during the 2009 World Championships.

A year earlier he had appeared to slow down in the final strides of the Olympic final in Beijing, bashing his fist against his chest as he crossed the line in 9.69 to trim 0.03 off the mark he had unexpectedly set earlier in the season.

In Berlin, there was nothing but serious intent from the charismatic Jamaican as he lowered his 100m mark to 9.58 on August 6, and four days later trimmed his 200m mark from the 19.30 he had set in Beijing - breaking Michael Johnson’s outstanding mark of 19.32 from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - to the one that stands top of the list now - 19.19. It was perhaps Bolt's outstanding athletic performance in the event about which he was always most serious.

Quite an act to follow. But it is the nature of sport that a new generation will try - and this week could offer some key pointers…