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When the Emperor gave the green light

From the early history of street races in Berlin


100th anniversary of the Berlin Athletics Association

The Berlin Athletics Association (Berliner Leichtathletik-Verband (BLV)) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. On November 15, 1904, the Association of Berlin Athletics Clubs (Verband Berliner Athletik-Vereine (VBAV)) was founded. The president was Otto Gronert from SC Komet, and the vice-president was Paul Martin from the Charlottenburg SC 1902, now called SCC Berlin (and organizer of the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON). The association organized its first race on March 12, 1905, a cross country race around the Hundekehlesee Lake in the Grunewald Forest.

In honour of the anniversary, a 48-page commemorative brochure is planned within the framework of the Berlin-Brandenburg Track and Field Championships, which will take place on June 5 and 6 in the Bosestrasse Stadium. It can be ordered from the BLV (telephone: 030 – 3057250) and will probably cost between 3 and 4 Euros.

Today, races of various lengths are part of the daily sports programmes in many cities. 83 years ago, however, a lot of courage was necessary for the Berlin Athletics Club to organize its first street race, “Across Berlin” (“Quer durch Berlin”). “Across Berlin” quickly developed to be an internationally renowned running and walking competition, which from 1921-1957 almost always took place on the 25 km return course between the Post Stadium and Lausitzer Platz.

Since 1881, walkers and runners have drawn great public interest for their long distance marches: Fritz Käpernick ran the distance between Berlin and Vienna (ca. 600 km) in 92 hours. Otto Peitz walked from Berlin to Vienna (ca. 580 km) in 1893 in 154:26 hours, and Johannes Böge won the long distance march from Dresden to Berlin (202 km) in 28:41 hours in 1896! In addition, since 1894 there had been long distance races (25.6 km) from Potsdam to Berlin that hardly drew any public notice.

Records of victories exist for: 1894 - R. Werner from SC Nord-West Berlin in 1:48:00 hours; 1895 - Knospe from SC Frankfurt 85 Berlin in 1:45:50h; and 1896 -Paul Badow from the Spandauer Radfahrer-Club Germania in 1:47:31h.

The prominent position of Berlin in long distance running was demonstrated in that of the 33 “German Marathon Races” and “German Marathon Championships” that took place between 1898 and 1942, 22 were won by athletes from Berlin! And this successful sport story took place despite the considerable hindrances put in their way by the Berlin authorities. The head official of the Forsthaus Grunewald, for instance, fined the Berlin Athletics Club five Marks because the club “organized a race in the Grunewald Forest around the Hundekehlesee Lake on March 11, 1906 from 3¾ to 4¼ (p.m.) with about 90 participants without having received authorisation from the police.”

6th Potsdam – Berlin relay race on June 1, 1913 with 57 teams and 2850 runners. The Berliner Sport Club employed Prince Karl of Prussia as the anchor runner and won.

With respect to the wide level of activity and public response, what the large city relay races were 90 years ago is the marathon today. The journey of Berlin athletes and functionaries to the Olympic Games in 1906 in Athens motivated Berlin to apply to host the Olympic Games in 1908. The marathon race greatly impressed Carl Diem, who wanted to realize a race like that in Berlin. Although Berlin was not successful in getting the Olympic Games in 1908, it was possible to organize a “relay marathon” in the city that year. In preparation for his marathon race, Carl Diem took his thus far poor experiences with the Berlin authorities into consideration. Even he thought that his idea to organize a race through the streets of Berlin was crazy, and he also was afraid that the sight of a marathon race like he had seen in Athens could have detrimental effects.

To counteract the public opinion on the runners’ apparent lack of common sense even during the harmless forest races, where the spectators expressed pity for the athletes who “raged against their health” and “ran their lungs out”, Diem employed a trick: “I had the idea to organize a long race, but wanted to trick the public by constantly showing them a new man. I was thinking of a big relay race from Potsdam to Berlin, starting at the Potsdam Palace and ending at the Berlin Palace - for one, because we always are for something magnificent, and because we wanted a great start and finish area.”

12th Potsdam – Berlin Relay Race on June 22, 1919. A women’s relay of 12.5 km was included for the first time. Sport Club Charlottenburg (SCC Berlin) wins in 40:55.6 minutes with anchor runner Ms. Franke.

The police naturally dismissed his attempt to get approval for the race. After great efforts by influential friends and supporters with access to the imperial court, Emperor Wilhelm II finally sanctioned the race from his Potsdam palace to his Berlin residence. The police, however, raised considerable objections to the location of the start and finish, so that they finally agreed upon a start on the Glienicker Bridge and finish at the Victory Column (Siegessäule) in front of the Reichstag. The unique aspect of this relay race was that it had a free form. Each club could set the individual distances for 50 runners for a total of 25 km as they saw fit. The first race took place with eight teams on June 14, 1908. The police were somewhat surprised when only eight runners, and not the expected 400, crossed the finish at the Victory Column!

Gerd Steins

(The photos have been made available through the generosity of the Sport Museum Berlin – AIMS Marathon Museum of Running).

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