Barcelona, shining star

Twenty-four times the Olympic Summer Games have been held, but those at Barcelona in 1992 have been heralded as the lodestar for future Games and the model for Athens. Part of this may be Greece’s and Spain’s common Mediterranean home, perceived similarities in outlook, and shared histories of dictatorship. Mainly, however, it is a case of similar urban aims. Barcelona focused overwhelmingly on building a better environment for city and region (some nine-tenths of all its investment went into infrastructure), both paralleling hopes for Athens. Visiting Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos did little to dampen this latter-day homage to Catalonia even while he made extensive efforts, in a spirited talk-cum-modern history lesson, to explain why Barcelona’s situation was, in fact, unique. Rather like the Athens of 1997, Barcelona suffered a case of urban decline, was seemingly cut off from the sea, suffered traffic problems and had a problematic national economy behind it. Yet, very unlike Athens, there was strong political will to overcome structural crises on a cooperative, bipartisan basis and to implement firmly practical goals, years before the Games. Barcelona succeeded, he asserted, because it simply had no choice after the «very profound economic crisis» of the early 1980s, following the delicate switch to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, and the near-overnight obsolescence of the city’s industrial base after the 1973 oil crisis. The city faced the «dreadful 22s,» that is, 22 percent inflation and 22 percent unemployment, together. Athens, unfortunately, does not have the luxury of such an intense crisis to kick such efforts into higher gear. A new Games effect The Spanish city plumped for the Olympics, not for its sports potential, but «for the sake of transforming the city» – a huge gamble at the time that was recognized as such by all involved. This recognition galvanized an unusually wide consultation process involving 10 key entities and 300 institutions behind an overall post-Games strategic plan for city and region, which was put into place in 1987 – a full five years before the Games. The plan had two objectives, growth and jobs and social cohesion, and encompassed urban renewal projects based on a new 43.5-kilometer (27-mile) ring road, opening up the city to the seafront, a new airport (now set to double its already expanded capacity), and a doubling of hotel capacity. As Mr Clos later told this newspaper, it was crucial that the plan was agreed upon early in the Olympic cycle, that coordination was thorough, and that the mayor of Barcelona (his predecessor) – rather than a Spanish government official – was the centerpiece of the delicate balancing act. The results, a tenfold return on investments, speak for themselves. And the spirit has not died; a 10-year anniversary party for the successful bid, expected to bring out 4,000 people in 1996, instead brought out 250,000 – and led to the city’s Universal Forum of Cultures, set for summer 2004. Yet things always seem better in retrospect. At the time not all was happy coexistence; the IOC’s Juan-Antonio Samaranch had to intervene locally to get squabbling politicians to cooperate, while the clearance project that paved the way for the harbor-side Olympic Village displaced thousands of lower-income residents as well as bankrupt factories and a decrepit railroad. And for all its efforts to emulate, Athens will never be able to return to 1998 and start afresh – which may also limit the huge post-Games bonanza that its Catalan cousins have enjoyed. The past, after all, helps determine the future.