OLYMPICS COVER

Under The Midday Sun

CHRIS WOOD August 10 1992
OLYMPICS COVER

Under The Midday Sun

CHRIS WOOD August 10 1992

Under The Midday Sun

Letter from Barcelona

In central Barcelona sits the unfinished Church of the Holy Family—Sagrada Familia in Catalan, the regional language. Begun by architect Antoni Gaudí in 1882, it features a set of towering spires that rise from stone foundations and blossom into a riot of bizarre and exuberant decoration; stone cornices seem on the verge of melting, Dali-like, on to a sculpted boy whimsically cut in half at the waist. Across the street, in the shady Plaça Sagrada, the people of Barcelona carry on in their own exuberant style. Hawkers at canvas booths peddle T-shirts, handmade toys and jewelry to throngs of strollers. Only a shouted “vamonod’—let’s go—warns unwary passers-by as a clutch of young girls on roller skates dart out of a side street. Posters plastered on a wall advertise a demonstration calling for an end to the American trade embargo of Cuba. For all the impact that the Olympic Games may have on local commerce and athletics, on politics and tourism, they will at most be only a chapter—and a fleeting one at that—in the city’s long history. Barcelona imposes itself on the Olympics at least as much as the Games dominate the city.

That is especially evident in the heat that bakes residents and visitors alike under cloudless skies and temperatures that hover around 30° C. “It is everybody’s unseen competitor,” says Andrew Pipe, chief medical

officer of the Canadian Olympic team. “In Canada, you would cancel races in these conditions.” Organizers of the Barcelona Games have done their best to mitigate the city’s searing climate for spectators: there are pools, fountains and artificial waterfalls dotted around many of the Olympic sites. And the most popular item in the ubiquitous CocaCola machines (which the Atlanta-based company paid about $40 million for the exclusive right to install at Olympic events) is not the Real Thing but half-litre bottles of Fontdor mineral water that are an essential part of a foreigner’s Barcelona survival gear.

Natives long ago devised another response to the midday heat: between about noon and 5 p.m., most businesses close their doors. During those hours, the Ramblas, the popular strolling street in the heart of the city, all but empties of humanity as fashionable clothing and jewelry stores retreat behind closed shutters. An exception is the glittering—and air-conditioned—indoor Bulevard Rosa shopping mall, where trendy boutiques with names like Ziczac and Tu Tarzan Yo Jane do a brisk business. It is only after the sun begins to sink that life returns to the Ramblas and local families pushing babies in strollers jostle with tourists beneath the trees and browse the stalls that sell everything from exotic parrots to roses and books.

Another remedy for Barcelona’s oppressive heat is more of a gamble. The city’s renovated waterfront is lined with beaches, but the Mediterranean Sea, which laps against them, is decidedly murky. “I’ve heard about dead puppies, dead goats,” says Canadian dinghy sailor Sara McLean, “and you run into all the personal little items of Spanish social life that you would rather not know about.” In fact, so frequently have Olympic sailors encountered discarded condoms that they have nicknamed them “Mediterranean whitefish.” Still, the dubious water quality does not deter hundreds of Barcelona residents, for whom the pleasures of a dip in the sea outweigh the hazards. “It is not dangerous,” insists Rosa Carlos as she dries herself off after splashing topless in the gentle surf at the Passeig Maritim beach, just west of the Olympic sailing harbor. “There is a slick, and sometimes you get a rash, but I come here often.”

With an estimated 12,500 journalists covering the Games, the city has also become a magnet for political and personal causes of every stripe. In addition to the group protesting against the American economic blockade of Cuba, a group of Croatian nationalists celebrated the Balkan republic’s newly achieved independence outside several Olympic sites last week. On one occasion, about a dozen Croats with their cheeks—in one case, eyelids and lips as well—painted in the red, white and blue of the Croatian flag strummed guitars and sang in Croatian to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic outside the arena where their country’s basketball squad was losing to the American Dream Team.

Barcelona’s Catalan majority has seized the Olympic occasion to express its ethnic pride, as well. While few of the region's 6.1 million people argue for independence, they assert their Catalan identity and have historically resisted assimilation by the rest of Spain. Now, the country’s second-largest city seems determined to leave no doubt where its first loyalties lie. Spanish King Juan Carlos may have presided over the Olympic opening ceremonies—and his son,

Don Felipe de Borbon (who attended Lakefield, the private school for boys near Peterborough, Ont.), carried the Spanish flag—but it is the flag of Catalonia, with its four red stripes on a yellow field, that hangs from most balconies in the streets of Barcelona. Even the black satchels handed out to journalists billeted in the Olympic press village carry the Catalan crest, not that of Spain. On the other hand, the tide of nationalistic extremism, which at its peak immersed Catalonia in a wave of terrorist attacks during the 1970s and 1980s, appears to have receded: graffiti painted across one tiled wall of the Les Corts subway station declares: “Nacionalistas = Procriminales.”

That change in sentiment, however, has not persuaded security forces at the Games to relax their vigilance. With the Basque terrorist group ETA vowing to target the Barcelona Olympics, about 35,000 members of the civil guard, the national police and city and provincial forces—along with assorted air force and naval units—are keeping an eye on the crowds. Spectators entering high-profile events such as the opening ceremonies or those basketball games in which the American team plays must submit handbags to double and often triple searches and pass through metal detectors. Such precautions aside, Spain’s security forces have shed most of their former reputation for highhanded disregard of human rights and outright brutality—a reputation earned in the era of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who died in

1975. Authoritarian habits are hard to break, however. More than one member of the policiahas abruptly ordered journalists entering a media area to halt—only to inquire whether they have any Olympic pins to distribute.

As the Games reached their halfway point, the only visible extremists were a handful of individual eccentrics. Among them was one Canadian cyclist whose bike, propped near the approaches to the Olympic Stadium on Montjuic, bore a sign proclaiming in crude letters, “Le monde est la musee de dieuxT—the world is God’s museum—and who was inviting passers-by to place donations in a globe mounted between the handlebars. Then there was Tunisian photographer Bechir Manoubi, whose Mexican-style sombrero and baggy red pants and trousers were all but invisible beneath an incrustation of accumulated pins and commemorative patches from the eight Olympics and sundry world championships that he has attended since 1960.

Amid the heat, the competitions, the politics and the self-promoters,

Barcelona has managed to retain its humor and its generosity. In contrast to the inflexible Korean officials who presided over the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988, those in Barcelona are generally accommodating and, even in the face of overheated and often impatient foreigners, remarkably good-tempered. Journalists can launder sweatstained clothes free of charge, travel free on the city’s efficient subways—even quaff free Estrella beer at many Olympic sites. Competitors, meanwhile, dine on cuisine prepared by French chefs (Catalan chauvinism apparently having its limits) in a seaside athletes’ village that Olympic veterans assert is the most commodious ever; it is also the first to provide accommodation without charge.

Barcelona’s insistent whimsy is just as unmistakable. Although most of the attention at the Games’ opening ceremonies was on the colordrenched spectacle taking place on the field, a close observer might have noticed a handful of performers above the stage at one end of the arena. They included a cartoonish general in powdered wig, a large red eye with what looked like black fins on either side and a woman with a blue guitar for a torso. What did they all mean? Who knows? To ask a question is almost certainly to miss the point. Gaudí—he of the quirky church—would have approved.

CHRIS WOOD

in Barcelona