OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Pin lady keeps trading as harmony rules the waves: As the Olympic Games settles into its second week, Richard Williams writes a letter from Barcelona

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FIRST week of the Olympic Games is always a bit of a phoney war, notable chiefly for the nervous efforts of the television people to whip up interest in handball and Greco-Roman wrestling in order to justify the sort of investment that would solve the economic crises in some of the smaller countries represented here.

On the other hand, it is also the time when people start questioning the relevance to the Olympic ideal of millionaires from the worlds of tennis and

basketball. Today, with the running of the 100 metres final, the Games will get its proper kick-start and the chattering can stop. Which is not to say that the week has been devoid of enjoyment, excitement and spectacle. The capital of Catalonia is a city made for festivals, and currently it seems like a giant multiple amphitheatre, its co-ordinates redrawn by the routes from one stadium to another, its scale distorted by the massive floating hotels moored in its harbour in a display of corporate hospitality so ostentatious that by comparison Wimbledon or Ascot look like the village skittles competition.

Crystal Harmony is the name of the 49,000-ton vessel chartered for the convenience of the executives and special friends of Coca-Cola and the Mars Corporation, two of the main sponsors of the Games of the 25th Olympiad of the modern era. Anchored at the bottom of the wide boulevard that leads from the sea up to the Olympic Stadium on the heights of Montjuc, it has an atrium, a ballroom, and street lamps illuminating the cocktail parties taking place on its several rear decks.

At the other end of the scale is the lady from Illinois who sits on the Avinguda de la Reina Maria Cristina at the foot of Montjuc most evenings, a velvet cloth covered with Olympic pins in her lap, trading them for other pins or for tickets to the Games. She's over here on holiday with her 12-year-old son - the younger children stayed at home with her husband, a college professor - and she wants him to see as much as possible. 'But I don't mind if the United States doesn't win,' she said as the vast ornamental fountains spurted emerald, sapphire and gold in time to Freddie Mercury's 'Barcelona' in a startling nightly aquatic son et lumiere.

Most of the many American fans thronging the stadiums mind very much if their teams and individuals don't win. The booing of gymnastics judges was just one expression of the American appetite for domination. Koreans, Brazilians, Swedes and Japanese are the other nations with large contingents of chauvinistic supporters in the stands and on the streets. The British turned up in numbers to cheer the three-day eventers and, of course, to acclaim Chris Boardman's triumph in the wooden O of the velodrome. Two London boys wrapped in Union Jacks were amazed that the Games had got off the ground at all. They'd spent six months working in a resort hotel up the coast, near Lloret de Mar, and had long ago convinced themselves that in this instance manana really would never come.

Perhaps Barcelona does owe the presence of thousands of competitors, officials, visiting spectators and media people to its status as the birthplace of the president of the International Olympic Committee, whose expression at the opening ceremony was a bit like that of a schoolboy whose parents have turned up to see him win the form prize. But it's hard to argue against the city's suitability as host to the world's greatest sporting event, and the citizens - those, at least, who haven't rented out their apartments and left town for the duration - seem to be enjoying themselves, while taking the chance to make a point. Red and yellow Catalan flags are draped like washing from every other window, sometimes linked with the Olympic standard. And greater sacrifice can no city dweller make than the offering up of a lane of every main street to Olympic traffic.

There are police everywhere - in armoured cars, behind trees, on rooftops, wearing body armour and carrying pump-action shotguns - and security at all venues is probably as tight as it can be at a public event, but the atmosphere is never oppressive. For this, the city and Games' organisers can probably thank the 30,000 young unpaid volunteers from all over Spain who are staffing entrances and information kiosks with extraordinary good humour.

For all the hoopla, and despite the Beatlemania-style mobbing of the Dream Team every time Michael Jordan and company step outside their hotel, there remains a sense of the city taking the invasion in its stride, of refusing to get things out of proportion.

At the dilapidated canodrome, opposite the Montjuc steps, dog-handlers and gamblers get on with their equally urgent rituals. And even the most assiduous efforts of the clean-up brigade have failed to banish the transvestite whores, who continue to loiter with unmistakable intent, skirts hoisted and breasts bared, making their husky proposals down crooked alleys where the teeming Ramblas meets the waterfront, barely the arc of a discus from the bright lights of Crystal Harmony.