I’m just back from a few days’ break in Barcelona, where the sports-loving locals have been feeling down ever since their favourite football team lost a title decider against their bitter rivals, then a Champions League semi-final and finally their manager, all in the space of a week. No wonder there were dark clouds hanging over the Nou Camp stadium when we visited it.
Fortunately, things were a lot brighter at the other sports venue we visited.
Apart from football, Barcelona’s other sporting legacy is its staging of the 1992 Olympic Games, which revitalised both the city and the Olympics. Following a series of Games marred by bloodshed, boycotts and drug scandals, thankfully the 1992 edition was as vibrant and enjoyable as its host. And the city’s current Port Olimpic area, formerly a post-industrial wasteland, was regenerated thanks to the sailing facility and athletes’ village built there.
Barcelona’s Olympic stadium, now officially named the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys after a Catalan politician executed in 1940 by the Franco regime, stands on the picturesque hill of Montjuic to the south of the city centre. To get there, you can take a tour bus from the city centre or even a cable car up from the seafront, but perhaps the best way is to walk from Plaça d’Espanya and use the series of escalators to climb the hill – the Olympic complex is around the back of the Museum of Catalan Art.
Nearby are other venues from the same Olympics – for instance, the Palau Sant Jordi arena just next door was home to the gymnastic events, while just down the hill are the diving pools, with their spectacular backdrop of the Barcelona city centre. (Pop trivia: They also feature in the video for Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’.) The futuristic needle-like communications tower by Santiago Calatrava is another nearby landmark that dates from the Olympic period. Trees and green fields cover the rest of the hill, lending a tranquil air to the area.
A middle-tier section of the Olympic stadium is open to the public, with no entry charge – you can simply stroll in from the street outside. (By contrast, entry to the Nou Camp stadium and its museum costs a whopping 24 euros per person.)
It’s quite a thrill to be in an Olympic stadium – especially one as distinctive as Barcelona’s, with its clock and arch at one end. The Olympic cauldron is still there; you’ll remember how it was lit with a flaming arrow fired by Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo. Famously, the arrow was deliberately shot over the cauldron and out of the stadium, but there’s no ceremonial scorchmark outside to commemorate where the arrow landed, or in whom.
In the stadium there’s a tourist giftshop, and a café where you can sit by the window and survey the scene. The running track is now blue, laid down for the 2010 European Athletic Championships – and since then the stadium hasn’t been used much. Superstar concert tours by the likes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen roll in every so often. For a decade after the Games, the stadium was used by Barcelona’s other football team, Espanyol, until they moved to a new ground a couple of years ago. It’s sad to think that the Olympic stadium’s open-door policy may be a necessary expedient to attract visitors and stave off neglect. However, the World Junior Athletic Championships will be held there in July, so that should clear away the cobwebs for a while yet.
Near the stadium is Barcelona’s own Olympic and sporting museum, named after former International Olympic Committee chief Juan Antonio Samaranch, which I highly recommend you visit. At only €4.50 per person, entry is great value – you can see signed memorabilia from famous sportspeople, informative and entertaining displays (including a searchable database with videos of Olympic highlights) and even an interactive game to test your reflexes. (If you’re competitive, try to beat my score of 35.) And if that’s too hectic for you, then simply browse Samaranch’s collection of conkers.
Strangely, there is no souvenir shop in the museum, nor is there Olympic-related merchandise on sale in the stadium shop. (Again, let’s compare that to the Nou Camp’s enormous store, through which all tour visitors are obliged to pass before they leave.) Could this be another instance of the dreaded Olympic commercial rights imposing themselves? Visitors would surely have liked to pick up a Barcelona ’92 memento or two – a poster, a DVD of highlights, perhaps even a Linford Christie lunchbox.
The athletics alone provided many highlights. Our British readers will remember wins by Christie and Sally Gunnell, as well as Derek Redmond limping around the track while propped up by his father. The United States dominated the sprints, though the Jamaican women’s presence in the minor medal places was a portent of things to come.
Unfortunately, Irish athletics fans will have painful memories of Barcelona ’92. In another of Ireland’s agonising Olympic near-misses, Sonia O’Sullivan finished fourth in the 3,000 metres.
Both 10,000 metres finals were dramatic. Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia won the women’s race ahead of Elana Meyer, the first South African to win a medal in her country’s return to the Olympics. The two Africans’ joint celebration provided a neat moment of post-apartheid symbolism. Meanwhile, in the men’s event Morocco’s Khalid Skah controversially defeated Kenya’s Richard Chelimo with the help of his lapped compatriot Hammou Boutayeb, raising suspicions of deliberate unsporting tactics. At one stage an official even ran onto the track to try to stop Boutayeb, but to no avail – Skah sprinted past Chelimo to take the gold. Skah was jeered by the crowd during his lap of honour and disqualified immediately afterwards, but after deliberations he was later reinstated as winner. (The bad feeling continued during the medal ceremony next day, when Skah was jeered again and Chelimo received a hero’s ovation from the crowd.)
My favourite races from Barcelona ’92 are the two 1,500 metres finals. Defying religious fundamentalism in her homeland just by the fact of being an athlete, Hassida Boulmerka of Algeria was an impressive winner of the women’s event. The race also defied the Olympic tradition for slow, cagey middle-distance finals – the first lap was a scorching 60 seconds. Despite this fast opening act, Boulmerka still had enough stamina to kick for home from 200 metres out without losing her fluid running posture, racing right through the finish line and celebrating with some emotionally-charged fist-pumping.
The men’s race an hour later provided one of the most surprising and popular winners of the entire Games. Nourredine Morcelli of Algeria was the hot favourite to emulate his compatriot Boulmerka and add Olympic gold to his World Championship title from the previous year. Yet in a slow, tactical race he ran poorly, was badly positioned in the pack and eventually finished a disappointing seventh.
Down the back straight on the final lap, with Morcelli out of contention, Spain’s Fermin Cacho found himself perfectly placed for an attack, and so around the final bend he shot out like a ferret from a hole. A memorable image of the Barcelona Olympics is Cacho’s run up the home straight – eyes bulging with exhilaration and panic, then looking back over his shoulder every few strides, and finally celebrating well before the line. Naturally, the home crowd went wild.
Here’s that men’s 1,500 metres final from the 1992 Olympics. (The video at this link is of better quality but, alas, can’t be embedded here.) Be sure to visit the Olympic stadium and museum next time you’re in Barcelona: