by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Wlasyslaw Sojka
The Olympic Park, Münich

Virtual Olympics Centre

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH 22 April 1999


The 1972 Olympics projected a new, go-ahead image of Munich, which it has benefited from ever since. The city has now been chosen to host a permanent, 'virtual' Olympics experience, holding out the prospect of a wholesome alternative to the scandal-ridden recent reality of the actual Games.

'Olympic Spirit Muenchen,' which was inaugurated March 24, is the brainchild of Andrew Grant, head of the London-based Grant Leisure Group and licensed by the International Olympic Committee. The project's 75 million Deutsche mark ($41 million) financing is shared in equal parts by private investors and the city of Munich.

Munich was picked as the site of the first of what is planned to be a chain of Olympic Spirit leisure centers around the world, said Roland Kleve, managing director of the venture, which is housed in the former Velodrome at Olympiapark, 'because the Munich Olympiapark has been the most successful of all post-Olympic venues in maintaining its original purposes long term.'

The Velodrome, said Mr. Kleve, a 35-year-old Dutch-born manager who previously spent seven years with Disneyland Paris, was the only major building in the park no longer in full use because the track was open-air and failed to meet standards for present racing. After two years of reconstruction, the arena has been converted into a 10,000-square-meter (12,000-square-yard) all-indoor space, consisting of a large ground-floor area devoted to the Winter Games, a first floor to summer events, a 500-square-meter gymnasium, a 300-seat café and a sports shop.

'The basic idea was to bring the Olympics to a bigger audience not just every two years,' Mr. Kleve said, 'and to present the Olympics not only as a visitor would see them but also through the eyes of the athletes and the judges.'

To produce the most convincingimpression possible, extensive filming was done at the latest Games at Nagano and Atlanta, with participants re-enacting events with cameras strapped to their bodies or equipment. Using this footage, high-tech simulators allow visitors to participate in some sports, sample virtual-reality versions of others, and try their hand at judging contests.

Visitors can square up to a life-size interactive and suitably provocative ice hockey goalie and try to shoot balls into the net, or, bat or racket in hand, be on the receiving end of a baseball pitcher or tennis player's deliveries. They can launch themselves from the starting blocks for the 100-meter sprint, and compare their reaction time and opening speeds to those of the champions, or run the 1,500 meters on a treadmill as part of a field projected on a screen in front of them.

Other events can be experienced by sitting in a four-man bobsled, which bumps, swings and tilts as it hurtles down a virtual-reality run at 'actual' speed and icy air blows in your face and ruffles your hair, or fly into the virtual void as a ski jumper. Strictly for those with strong stomachs is the chance to be whirled around while strapped into a gyroscope designed to reproduce the violent head-over-heels motions gymnasts perform.

Some sports, such as boxing and high diving, are presented as judging challenges, with visitors recording points on actual matches. They can then measure them against the real end results.

A composite 10-minute virtual experience of a series of events - not, warns the presiding 'coach,' as the staff are titled, to be undertaken by those with heart or back problems - is also provided in a 48-seat cinema with hydraulic seats that lurch, bounce and shudder to such convincing effect that some visitors may be left wondering why anybody takes up some of these sports in the first place. The cross-country biking sequence is a regular bone-shaker, the pole vault leaves your heart somewhere around your knees and the high dive gives a good idea of what it might be like to fall out of the window of a tall building.

Olympic Spirit is also offering day sessions for schools and sports groups. In the evenings, the complex will be available for private and corporate entertaining, although participants in this case would be advised to try certain 'rides' before rather than after hitting the buffet or special dinners provided.

'We hope to have half a million visitors in the first year, which, given that last year Olympiapark had 12 million visitors and 730,000 of these took the ride up the Olympic Tower, we believe to be an achievable figure,' said Mr. Kleve.

The refurbished Velodrome can take in 2,600 visitors, although at anything approaching this capacity the wait to participate in some activities could be long. Advance booking is advisable, and for anybody traveling any distance to come here, looks likely to become essential. Entry is 18 DM for children (aged 8 to 12) and 28 DM for adults.

While Bonn remained the seat of government in West Germany, Munich had little competition to its claim to be the Federal Republic's 'cultural capital.' The reinstatement of Berlin as the country's chief city certainly does not seem to be causing panic in a place where many Germans still say they would like to live, if only they could afford it.

The lure of the burgeoning Prussian metropolis has yet to dent tourism in Munich, which registered a rise of more than 6 percent in visitors last year, bringing nearly 3.4 million to a city with about 1.3 million inhabitants.

But Munich is not resting on its laurels in the area of museums, for instance, in which it has long been a leader, especially now that it is finding a rival in Berlin, whose galleries and museums have been undergoing extensive and ambitious expansion and restructuring.

Munich's Alte Pinakothek (Old Picture Gallery), one of the world's finest collections of European old masters, reopened its doors last summer after a prolonged restoration, which has turned out to have been well worth the wait.

Discussions have been going on since the beginning of this century on the need to create a new museum for thousands of works belonging to the state of Bavaria. The number of those works has been steadily increasing and many have never been on permanent display for lack of space.

At last the Pinakothek der Moderne (Modern Art Gallery) is taking shape next door to the Alte Pinakothek and Neue Pinakothek (which itself has an impressive range of post-18th-century masters). The 20 million DM, 22,000-square-meter new museum will bring together not only the collections of the State Gallery of Modern Art, presently housed in a sinister Fascist edifice, but also the State Graphic Art Collection, the Neue Sammlung (New Collection), which is devoted to design and applied arts, and the Architecture Museum of the Technical University.

The building itself is not especially exciting, but bringing the best of these rich collections together will make it possible to trace the development of 20th-century art, architecture and design under the same roof, promising a significant addition to the city's already impressive constellation of museums.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024