Barcelona goes from party town to city of Games


July 19, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- There is an Olympic stadium perched on a hilltop and a boxing arena that fronts a bar. A marina juts out like a grand boulevard in the Mediterranean, but the sea is so polluted, sailors guzzle bottles of Pepto-Bismol to ward off a bacteria battle in the belly.

The athletes' village is crammed with video games, bowling lanes and TV sets locked on MTV. But the apartment rooms have no air conditioning, and the village bars serve nothing stronger than soda.

The Summer Olympics have come to the city of the three-hour lunch, the seven-hour workday and the midnight dinner.

The 16-day global show begins Saturday when an archer shoots a flaming arrow across the stadium atop Montjuic to ignite the Olympic caldron. Then, more than 10,000 athletes will hit the stage in 31 sports ranging from the sublime (track and field) to the ridiculous (roller hockey) to the impenetrable (tae kwon do).

Michael Jordan and the best of the NBA will take on Angola. Tennis millionaires and badminton amateurs will contend for gold medals. South African athletes will end a four-decade Olympic exile. Yugoslavs will wear white uniforms and compete for something called the Independent Team.

But the featured performer is Barcelona, a city ruled by Socialists yet flushed with anticipation as it embraces the world's biggest corporate pig-out.

The northern Spanish province of Catalonia meets Coca-Cola.

For an $8 billion investment, Barcelona has built athletic facilities, hotels and a 142-mile ring road, pushing forward after nearly 40 years of repression under the regime of Francisco Franco. The city has transformed itself from a slightly tattered party town into a vibrant host for athletes and board chairmen, Iceland and IBM, Team USA and Team Xerox.

"We did in five years what it would have normally taken 30," said Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall.

A former visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Maragall extols the virtues of Bertha's Mussels, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer and former New York Mayor Ed Koch.

From one American pol, he learned the lessons of "Do it now." From the other, "How'm I doin'?"

L But Maragall's and Barcelona's project is far from complete.

The U.S. men's basketball team, fresh off its golf, gambling and exhibition tour through Monte Carlo, is supposed to stay in the downtown Hotel Vienna. But a few things are missing. Like windows, electricity and a lobby.

Across from the Olympic village, a 44-story office building is tilted 5 degrees to the sea. A matching hotel, owned and designed by Americans, financed by Japanese and constructed by Britons, Spaniards and Portuguese, isn't finished, either, and arson has been a slight problem. One day recently, 13 separate fires were set.

Anyone want to tell Princess Margaret of Great Britain and the other Olympic guests they'll have to double up?

"They've built themselves a leaning tower of Barcelona," said Jimmy Nielsen, a construction worker from London. "And the other one, they'll be lucky if that's done before Christmas."

Manana may be the operative word in the rest of Spain, but here in Barcelona, the metropolis of Catalonia, the word of choice is seny, shrewd.

With their own language, culture and history, Barcelona's Catalans have forged a unique identity.

"This is a Barcelona Olympics and Barcelona is a city which is the capital of Catalonia," said Pedro Fontana, director general of COOB, the local organizing committee. "In 1984, when Los Angeles was host to the Games, was it a California Games or a U.S. Games? Barcelona has two official languages, Catalan and Spanish, and we use them both. I speak Catalan to my in-laws. I speak Spanish to my children."

This is a city that nurtured Joan Miro and Salvador Dali. Here, there is a museum where you can see Pablo Picasso without abstractions, where you can walk through architectural history as created by Antoni Gaudi, a man who turned cave-like shapes into works of art.

Art may anchor the city, but it is sports that move the public. Even though the city has two rings, this is not a bullfight town. Just the basics, like soccer, basketball and American football.

The city's No. 1 museum attraction? The trophy room for soccer power FC Barcelona. When the team came home with the European Cup trophy in May, 1.5 million partisans lined the parade route. Not bad for a city of 1.7 million.

A day later, Barcelona's Joventut won the Spanish League basketball title.

Believe it or not, football's Barcelona Dragons of the World League are a hot local draw.

The Olympics are a natural fit. Back in 1936, the Catalans tried to schedule an alternative games to Hitler's Nazi Olympics in Berlin. But on the day of the opening ceremonies, the event was called on account of civil war.

"Why does the rest of the world want to remember what we don't?"Fontana said. "The country has gone from a dictatorship to a democracy without a single drop of blood."

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