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Olympic lore: Amigos para siempre? ~ the 1992 Barcelona Games

July 27, 2012

The red (hot) arrow: Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo launches the Olympic flame (on the end of his arrow) towards the cauldron in maybe the greatest opening ceremony moment ever 

Like a dignitary who’s just controversially cruised down an ‘Olympic Lane’ in their limousine, we’ve reached our destination, peeps – yes, it’s the finale of George’s Journal‘s celebration of post-war Summer Games past. And this last post in the series offers a look at, well, a unique and intriguing one to say the least. For the 1990s’ opening Olympic shindig (July 25-August 9) was unlike any of its forebear bonanzas and, as such, set more than one first for future Games. So, mis amigos, say ¡Hola! to Barcelona ’92…

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The Magic

The anticipation, expectation, excitement and, yes, magic of the Olympics coming to Barcelona kicked-off when, four years before the event itself, one of the Games’ official songs was recorded and first released. Barcelona, co-written by Queen’s Freddie Mercury, which he performed alongside opera star and host city native Monseratt Caballé, reached #8 in the UK charts and received heavy airplay overseas, ensuring it was a rather brilliant advert for the Olympics-to-come. It also went on to become a hit worldwide during the event itself, not least thanks to (following Mercury’s untimely death the year before) Caballé performing it at the Games’ closing ceremony in the Olympic stadium.

That very stadium had originally been built for the 1936 Games; instead those went to Berlin, of course. And yet, the stadium would fulfill its purpose when, as Barcelona ’92’s showpiece home, it was part of a multi-venue plan that saw huge investment and construction in a down-and-out area of the city, whose development would ensure the rest of the city would finally be connected to the coast, which – along with hosting the Games and the worldwide exposure that brought – ensured Barcelona became one of Europe’s principal tourist cities, a boast it’s been able to claim practically ever since the Olympics came to town.

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The Mascot

A huge success, Cobi the Catalan sheepdog was a cleverly ‘ethnic’ (being a Picasso-inspired Cubist-esque take on a Catalan breed of pyrenean dog) and cute creation, designed by modern artist Javier Mariscal. A ready bringer-in of the readies for the Games’ organisers, owing to his likeness appearing on all sorts of merchandise (‘Cobiana’) and starring in his own TV show The Cobi Troupe, the little but perfectly formed pooch was everywhere during the summer of ’92, including tethered as a huge inflatable at Barcelona’s waterfront (itself newly renovated for the Games) – not so little after all, then.

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The Moment

Many Olympic Games opening ceremonies have produced fine moments, such as all those drummers at Beijing 2008 or the inexplicable jetpack display at Los Angeles ’84. Some have also boasted unforgettable takes on that age-old tradition, the lighting of the Olympic flame’s cauldron, the climax of the always months-long torch relay. At Tokyo ’64, a young athlete (Yoshinori Sakai) who’d been born in Hiroshima the morning the US atomic bomb devastated the city was given the job; at Atlanta ’96 it was awarded to former Olympic and three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, the legendary (and then as now afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease) Muhammad Ali and at Sydney 2000 the honour fell to Aboriginee Cathy Freeman. By contrast, the lighting of the torch at Barcelona ’92 offered no such movingly symbolic, socially aware gesture; it simply proved to be a moment of utter ebullience.

As ever, the manner of the act itself was as closely guarded a secret as the Best Picture Oscar winner always is; nobody knew just what would transpire when the penultimate ‘torch bearer’ walked towards a man stepping out of the shadows… The flame was passed from the end of the torch to the tip of an arrow slung in a bow held by the man, who proceeded to lift the bow, draw back the arrow and launch it in a long arch – the flame still burning at its tip – from one end of the stadium to the other, where it landed in and lit the cauldron (see video clip above).

In reality, the arrow overshot its assumed target, but this was deliberate (for safety reasons and because it surely would have been practically impossible to hit the exact spot in the cauldron where natural gas was emitted to provide the flame), so the man himself didn’t actually light the cauldron. But that doesn’t matter a jot – for the moment was pure theatre; surely one of the Olympics’ most magical and most fondly recalled, drawing gasps from millions around the world as they watched it happen live on TV.

For his part though, the man responsible for the moment, archer Antonio Rebollo, was cool as a cucumber – and still is, as a 1996 interview with American broadcaster NBC revealed: “There were no fears; I was practically a robot,” he said. “I focused on my positioning and reaching the target. My feelings were taken from the people who described to me how they saw it. What they felt, their emotions, their cries. This is what made me realise what the moment actually meant”. Oh, he can also claim a double Paralympic silver medal-winning performance and a bronze medal-winning one for Spain. What a guy.

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Scene of meaning, genius teen and dream team: Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer on a symbolic victory lap (l), adolescent diving sensation Fu Mingxia (m) and the US basketball team (r)

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The Main Man

Derek Redmond ~ although both a one-time British 4x400m record holder and a World, European and Commonwealth Champion in the 400m proper, this English sprinter will forever be remembered for the most tragic moment of his career. Or, at least, it would have been the most tragic were it not for a surprise twist. A likely qualifier for the final of these Games’ 400m, Redmond instead found himself pulling up in pain during his semi-final race; the hamstring in his  leg snapping, his Olympics over. And yet, rather than take the obvious, face- and pain-saving option of quietly leaving the track, he hobbled on with one leg. If that wasn’t surprising enough, another chap, fending off officials, quickly entered the fray – Redmond’s father, Jim. Creating a genuinely heart-warming scene, he supported his son and helped him complete the race to a standing ovation from the stadium’s crowd (see video clip below).

The episode became something of a modern Olympic legend, later being selected as the subject of an International Olympic Committe (IOC) ‘Celebrating Humanity’ video for it summing up the spirit that the Games are supposed to be all about, underneath the drive to win medals and the cynical-seeming, if necessary, corporate sponsorship so prevalent nowadays. As for Redmond and his father… just a few weeks ago the latter got to carry the London 2012 torch during its heavily media-featured relay and the former married Sharron Davies. So not too shabby really.

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The Main Women

Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer ~ after having raced each other for lap after lap way ahead of the rest of the field in the Women’s 10,000m final, these two athletes eventually took the gold and silver medals. However, while their respective successes were significant in themselves (Tulu, an Ethiopian, was the first black African woman to claim an Olympic gold; Meyer, a South African, rubber-stamped a positive return to the Olympics and wider international sport for her country after the fall of apartheid – until Barcelona ’92, it had been denied entry to every Games since 1960), it was what took place immediately after the race that proved unforgettable. Instead of parading individually on ‘victory laps’, these two African athletes – one black and the other a white South African – instead jogged around the stadium holding hands. Sport, like many visual artforms, has a knack of illustrating in powerful images just what’s achievable in the real world – and reflect just what has been achieved in the real world – and this sporting image was as profound as any other such you care mention.

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Mentioned in dispatches

  • Following the break up of the Soviet Union a year before, there was no USSR team at the Summer Olympics for the first time since 1952. Instead, the former Soviet states (excluding Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, but including Russia, of course) competed at Barcelona ’92 as ‘Unified Team‘ and were represented by the Olympic flag – although the flags of athletes’ individual nations were raised during medal ceremonies. Indeed, these were the last Olympics at which any Soviet states would compete together
  • Similarly, following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the East and West German Olympic teams combined as a single, proper German team for the first time since 1936. In actual fact, in the post-war era the IOC hadn’t allowed the two separate nations, as they then had been, to compete separately until 1968 – at Melbourne ’56, Rome  ’60 and Tokyo ’64 then, it had been East and West Germany who’d competed together as ‘Unified Team’
  • Owing to the recent break up of Yugoslavia (another result of the Soviet Union’s demise), Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia all participated as independent nations at these Games, but Serbia and Montenegro wasn’t allowed entry due to UN sanctions thanks to the one-time nation’s role as chief aggressor in the Yugoslav Wars (1992-95). With the arguable exception of the Albertville ’92 Winter Games, these Olympics then were the first time the world witnessed a major event (sporting or otherwise, such as Eurovision) at which were present the ‘new’ Eastern European nations we’re so familiar with today
  • An old powerhouse dominated in Men’s basketball, however, in the shape of the United States – yet, thanks to a relaxing of the old amateurs-versus-professionals chestnut, the so-called American ‘Dream Team‘ rolled into town, packed full of NBA stars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and, yes, the legendary Michael ‘Space Jam‘ Jordan. Unlike their disaster at Munich ’72, this American team easily took home the gold medal
  • Chinese diver Fu Mingxia pulled off a truly impressive feat by winning the Women’s High Dive event, as she was only 13 years-old. Diving at this Olympics was also memorable for the spectacular view of the Barcelona cityscape it afforded
  • Israeli Yael Arad became her nation’s first ever Olympic medalist when she won silver in Women’s judo – on both the 20th anniversary of the ‘Munich Massacre‘ and the 500th anniversary of the Alhambra Decree. One day later, Israel won its second ever medal, Oren Smadja’s bronze in Men’s judo
  • With Carl Lewis reaching the twilight of his career, British sprinter Linford Christie had an outstanding opportunity to become ‘the fastest man on Earth’ by winning the Games’ traditional marquee event, the Men’s 100m. He duly did so and went on, for a short time, to dominate the distance, holding the Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles all at the same time. Sadly, though, like athletes before him and so many since, he eventually endured a doping scandal and retired in 1999, having tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. In actual fact, at Seoul ’88, Christie had tested positive for the banned substance pseudoephedrine, but unlike Ben Johnson he’d escaped sanction thanks to an IOC panel voting 11-10 in his favour (although two officials on the panel were reportedly asleep when the vote was taken). Christie also won a silver in the 4x100m Relay at Barcelona ’92
  • The Women’s 100m final proved arguably more eventful than the men’s, as five women finished within 0.05 seconds of each other. A photo finish eventually revealed sprint hurdler specialist Gail Devers had won by pretty much a literal whisker. She couldn’t repeat this success in her favoured event, the 100m Hurdles, though – in the final she hit a hurdle and finished fifth. However, in Sebastian Coe-style, she did manage to defend her 100m title at Atlanta ’96, again winning in a dead heat and, again, she failed to medal in the 100m Hurdles. She also won the 100m World title in 1993 – yes, again, in a dead heat
  • Further track success for Blighty came in the shape of Sally Gunnell, who won gold in the 400m Hurdles. Like Christie, she went on to win World, European and Commonwealth golds in her event – and broke the world record in her 1993 World title-winning run
  • Now always considered (hopefully not too hubristically) a source for a British ‘gold rush’ whenever the Olympics roll around, cycling saw its first ever UK success at these Games when Chris Boardman got the wheels rolling by winning the 400m Individual Pursuit
  • Steve Redgrave reached the middle of his marathon five-golds-in-five-consecutive-Summer-Games haul at these Olympics when he won the Coxless Pair with Matthew Pinsent. These two would win the same event four years later and make up half of the triumphant Coxless Four at Sydney 2000 where Redgrave completed his unique achievement. More British rowing glory came in the Coxed Pair, which was won by brothers Greg and Jonny Searle and cox Garry Herbert (the latter creating a classic TV moment when he blubbed uncontrollably on the medal podium as the UK national anthem played).

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Blooming and blubbering Brits: track stars Linford Christie (left) and Sally Gunnell (right) become household names after winning gold, while cox Garry Herbert – with rowers Greg and Jonny Searle – creates an unforgettable moment as he blubs on the winners’ podium (middle)

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The Memory

Although perhaps lacking the genuine highs and unforgettable lows of previous post-war Olympics, Barcelona ’92 certainly had a lot of, if you will, sugar without the spice – and, at the time, many were more than pleased by that. Indeed, as these were the first Summer Games to take place following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union, they were the first since 1960 not to be plagued by a boycott – all the nations who surely should have been there were there (including, as mentioned, South Africa; if not Serbia and Montenegro).

It may sound a little trite today, but it was true then, these games genuinely felt like a major event that reflected a new dawn; a representation of the positivity and progressiveness many hoped the 1990s would bring. As such, while the closing ceremony song Amigos Para Siempre (Friends For Life), written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black and performed by Sarah Brightman and José  Carreras, was a wee bit twee, it was also perfectly fitting – and not a bad listen too, all things said (see bottom video clip).

Moreover, the city of Barcelona was a brilliant host and it was great to see a likeable major country like Spain (who, relatively speaking, hadn’t been at peace with itself for very long) finally do well at a major sporting event, not least its own. In many ways then, Barcelona ’92 was something of a prototype for the open, optimistic, friendly and successful post-millennial Olympics that have been Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and – hopefully – will be London 2012…

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The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  Unified Team 45 38 29 112
2  United States 37 34 37 108
3  Germany 33 21 28 82
4  China 16 22 16 54
5  Cuba 14 6 11 31
6  Spain 13 7 2 22
7  South Korea 12 5 12 29
8  Hungary 11 12 7 30
9  France 8 5 16 29
10  Australia 7 9 11 27
13  Great Britain & NI 5 3 12 20

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