THE SUMMER GAMES

A CITY LOVE WITH ITSELF

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 27 1992
THE SUMMER GAMES

A CITY LOVE WITH ITSELF

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 27 1992

A CITY LOVE WITH ITSELF

A golden fish, fashioned from 90 feet of shimmering metal, soars above the waterfront. On a busy street corner, giant yellow steel matches lie twisted and burned, a visual joke that brings relief to a nondescript urban landscape. And on the crest of a green hill, a pristine white tower slices 350 feet into the sultry air, concealing the humdrum workings of a telephone exchange in a smooth shell that calls to mind a futuristic propeller. All cities project their personalities when they take on the task of hosting the most universal celebration of them all, the Olympics—and Barcelona has personality to spare. In the structures, symbols and style of the XXV Summer Games, it proclaims its special character: quirky, inventive, daring and playful.

Barcelona is also in the throes of a love affair with itself—and, like lovers everywhere, it is eager to display the object of its affection to the rest of the world. Staging the Olympics is Barcelona’s biggest-ever exercise in self-promotion, the ultimate opportunity to project itself into

the front rank of European cities. Its restless people have an ambitious (critics would say overblown) notion of their city’s role: a combination of creative capital and economic dynamo. To fulfil that vision, they have used the Games as an excuse for a massive $9-billion renovation program that has transformed their city. Mayor Pasqual Maragall, with the blend of boldness and old-fashioned civic boosterism that characterizes Barcelona’s current bout of heady optimism, calls it “an orgy of creativity.”

There is another subtext to the Barcelona Olympics that will strike visitors as soon as they arrive at the city’s gleaming new airport terminal, built especially for the Games. A billboard proclaims that travellers have landed in “Catalonia, a country in Europe,” and the taxi drivers outside are more likely to offer the Catalan greeting bo dia than the Spanish buenos días. Barcelona, local people are quick to point out, is not just Spain’s most dynamic city. More importantly, it is the capital of Catalonia, a region of 6.1 million people hard up against the French

border that cherishes its distinct identity in Spain no less than Quebec does in Canada. Catalan, which is as different from Castilian Spanish as Spanish is from Italian, is the region’s official language, and it is the Catalan flag with its four vertical red bars on a yellow background that most often flutters from public buildings and private homes. The official languages of the Barcelona Olympics are English, French, Spanish—and Catalan.

The Catalans’ nationalism, however, is not aggressive or even antiSpanish. Only about 10 per cent of voters support outright independence. Most, like the region’s long-serving president, Jordi Pujol, favor greater autonomy within Spain while forging direct links with other parts of Europe. Catalonia is the richest, most industrialized region of the country. With less than a sixth of Spain’s population, it attracts a third of manufacturing investment; its people have long looked east and north to Europe rather than west to Madrid for both trade and cultural inspiration. They regard the rest of Spain much as the burghers of prosperous,

bustling Milan view southern Italy: inefficient, backwards and a drag on their own development. The bullfights-and-flamenco image of Spain, they say, has nothing to do with them. “I am a Catalan first, though I’m not against Spain,” says Bartolomé Masoliver, a dapper Barcelona lawyer who is the Canadian Olympic team’s attaché, or local representative, in the city. When he crosses the Ebro, the river that separates the northeast from the rest of Spain, he adds, “I feel like I’m arriving in a foreign country.”

Spain has sometimes treated Catalonia, and Barcelona, as foreign, as well. As far back as 1716, King Philip V banned the use of Catalan in teaching, publishing and government. Francisco Franco, the Fascist dictator who died in 1975, imposed similar measures after the civil war of 1936 to 1939, when Catalonia was a hotbed of anti-Fascist sentiment. “Perro Catalán, habla en cristiano! ’’(Catalan dog, speak Christian!) was how activists from Franco’s Falange party abused people whom they caught speaking Catalan in public as late as the 1960s. And nationalists had to express their feelings in such roundabout ways as their almost religious devotion to Barcelona’s Barça soccer team. The Fascist years also saw a marked neglect of the city itself, as it mushroomed into a metropolis of 1.7 million people with sprawling suburbs squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Collserola hills to the north. City officials drew up ambitious plans to channel the runaway growth, but there was little money and no political will to implement them.

That started changing after Franco died and a new generation of leftwing civic activists took over the 14th-century city hall in the heart of the medieval Barri Gotic (or Gothic Quarter). But it was not until the city won the Olympics in 1986 (it helped that International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch is a native of Barcelona) that the floodgates finally opened. The national and regional governments poured money into the city—a total of about $9 billion over four years— while private investors spent another $2 billion. That allowed city officials to put into effect plans that they had drawn up years before. “We knew where we wanted the city to go,” says Xavier Roig, a onetime graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa who now runs the mayor’s office. “We just used the Olympics as an excuse to speed up development and do 20 years’ work in five years.”

That involved building 42 km of new highways around the city to relieve one of Europe’s worst traffic problems. And it meant opening the city to the sea. Although Barcelona had been an important port for centuries, a broken-down belt of obsolete factories, old warehouses and rusty railway tracks had for decades nearly cut its people off from the Mediterranean. The buildings were tom down, the railway was moved and Barcelona now has four kilometres of new beaches and waterfront ¡2 walkways dotted with restaurants and cafés. (The water quality is still o uncertain, however. Windsurfers practising for the Games last week 2 complained they were bumping into dead rats and used condoms.) The centrepiece of the seafront development is the Olympic Village, where 15,000 athletes and officials will be housed during the Games, and g the adjoining Parc de Mar, where yachting events will be staged. Two 5 new skyscrapers soar above the waterfront, stark landmarks in a city

with almost no other highrise buildings. And amid a new shopping complex at their base is the 90-foot-high sculpture of a golden fish, the work of California artist Frank Gehry, that will be one of the Olympics’ quirky legacies to the city.

Other Olympic facilities include a new sports complex at Vail d’Hebron, in the city’s neglected north end, where athletes will compete in archery, cycling, tennis and, as a demonstration event, the peculiarly Basque sport of pelota (also known as jai alai and a big favorite in Florida). The northwest Diagonal district will host soccer, judo and equestrian events. But the Games’ showpiece is the towering hill of Montjuïc Gews’ Mount; named for a colony of Jews who dwelt there in the Middle Ages), overlooking the sea, where the most prestigious events will take place. They will begin on Saturday in the main stadium, built originally for the 1929 World Exhibition, which retains its elaborate original facade after extensive remodelling for this year’s Olympics. An archer on the stadium’s running track will launch a burning arrow at a torch above the east wall, lighting the Olympic flame and signalling the official start of the Games.

Beside the stadium is the Games’ most striking structure—the $100-

million Sant Jordi sports palace designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. It is a multipurpose arena that will host gymnastics, volleyball and handball during the Games, but has already been used for events as varied as hockey games and a Frank Sinatra concert. Its 3,000-ton roof was raised by a dozen hydraulic jacks over a period of 20 days to a height of 45 m. The result is an airy structure whose undulating white roof is pockmarked by 100 transparent bubbles that flood its interior with daylight. It looks like something that might have just set down gently after an intergalactic voyage, and when it opened in 1990,300,000 local people came out to gawk at it.

The Games’ organizers were determined to set Barcelona’s special stamp on the Olympics in other ways, as well. It has long been known as the design capital of Europe, a fitting vocation for a city with an architectural heritage unique on the continent and an artistic tradition that includes Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali. From the medieval treasures of the Barri Gôtic to the bizarre structures of Antoni Gaudí and his tum-of-the-century Modernist contemporaries, Barcelona is a visual wonder. It lacks the grand public buildings of such old imperial capitals as Paris and Madrid, but at almost every turn it offers visitors a treat for the eye: the Casa Figueras pastry shop on the city’s most famous strolling street, the Ramblas, with its riot of ceramic decoration; or Gaudí’s sea-green paving stones on the elegant Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s version of the Champs Elysées. And its famed nightlife is carried on in designer bars with self-consciously contemporary names like Nick Havanna, TickTackToe and the Network Café, where local trendies nurse $15 drinks and try to live up to the futuristic decor.

The city’s obsession with design and decoration is reflected in the Olympics, too. Javier Mariscal, who started off as a comic-book artist and moved on to design innovative restaurants and nightclubs, was commissioned to give the Games their mascot and symbol: a punky dog with spiked hair named Cobi. It is a sign of how much Barcelona reveres its designers that Mariscal has become a local folk hero, mobbed for autographs and sketches wherever he appears. And the Games gave new impetus to an ongoing city program to put original art in every neighborhood. Since the early 1980s, about 100 plazas and parks have been redesigned around original sculptures by some of the world’s bestknown artists, each of whom received a modest $24,000 for his efforts. Xavier Corberó, a Catalan artist whose creation of delicately carved black-and-white marble adorns the Plaça de Soller in a working-class neighborhood, recalls that when his work was unveiled, 25,000 people turned out to see it. “I cried because the reception was so amazing,” says

Corberó. “Barcelona isn’t a tremendously rich city, but the people know how to value luxuries.”

While the Olympics have tapped Barcelona’s immense enthusiasm for itself, the Games do face some problems. The most obvious threat is security. The Basque terrorist group ETA (the acronym for Basque Land and Liberty) has vowed to target both the Olympics and Seville's Expo 92, which ends in October. In early April, French police arrested several top ETA leaders, but the group still poses a potent threat. Madrid and Barcelona have mobilized 10,000 police, 6,000 soldiers and 5,000 civil guards to counter the danger. One potential threat comes from the sea—to the Parc de Mar and to the 10 cruise ships anchored in the city’s harbor as floating hotels and hospitality suites for corporate sponsors. Police divers will be patrolling the vulnerable seafront in two minisubmarines: 10-foot-long vessels manufactured by a Vancouver company, International Venture Craft Corp.

The Games have also turned out to be too popular for their own good, with far more athletes and officials wanting to attend than organizers could handle. A record number of countries will be represented—172, compared with 160 at Seoul four years ago. New countries like Croatia, Slovenia and the Baltic states will be there, and with the Cold War now history no one is boycotting the Olympics for the first time in more than a decade. “The world is not split into East and West anymore, so the Games have a more universal image than ever before,” observes Caridad Reixa, spokesman for the Olympic organizing committee.

The committee also decided to offer 19 days’ free accommodation in the Olympic Village to athletes and officials—the first time that had ever been done. The result was a flood of late applications. Organizers had counted on housing 15,000 people, but teams submitted 19,000 names. “Everyone thought it was a great idea to have a paid holiday,” says Reixa. “But there’s no way we could find places for all those people, let alone feed them or do their laundry.” In the final weeks before the Games, organizers were locked in talks with officials from national teams, making them pare their lists back to the original numbers.

Still, the problems have been minor, and Barcelona, a party town par excellence, is about to stage the biggest bash in its history with few backward glances. The city unsuccessfully sought the Olympics three times before—in 1924,1936 and 1972. The Games, says Josep Garcia Reyes, director of Catalonia’s commission for relations with the Americas, have been a long time coming and the Catalans are determined to make the best of them. “It has been a great investment in everything—in the city, the region, in excitement,” he says. “We want to show the world that we are modem and we can make things work.” So far, at least, the world has plenty of reasons to offer its homage to Catalonia.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Barcelona