Why all the fuss? The jeers and whistles that greeted the Olympic flame on its route through the city, albeit from a minority, explained the tight security. 'We are under military occupation by Spain. Freedom for Catalonia now,' said posters and pamphlets distributed on the Ramblas as the flame was carried past by joggers with a heavy police escort on Friday night.
Two bombs which caused a spectacular fire on Friday at a gas pipeline not far from Barcelona were a further reminder that not everyone is bathing in the Olympic spirit. Yesterday police broke up groups of Spanish and Catalan nationalists to prevent clashes before the Olympic torch was carried through the city.
To the people of this autonomous Spanish principality, Catalonia, these are Els Jocs (Catalan for 'the Games'), not los Juegos, as in Spanish. Nationalist feeling has been running high in the run-up to the Olympiad but yesterday the Catalonians' renowned seny (common sense) appeared to be holding sway.
The friction was obvious at the final pre-Games news conference held by the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. 'What is your name?' a journalist asked him. 'I am the president of the IOC, Mr Samaranch,' said the Olympic chief, struggling to keep his composure. The journalist had been making the point that most native sons of Barcelona, of which Samaranch is one, would use the Catalan version of their Christian names, in his case Joan Antoni.
Did the IOC chief not feel a certain embarrassment that he once served the dictator Franco in suppressing his own Catalan language and culture, asked another newsman. 'I am very proud of my past, you can be sure,' he replied.
On, then, with the show, billed as the 'most complete' Olympic Games in decades, if not in history. No boycotts, few absences, diplomatic compromises to ensure maximum participation. In ancient Greece, they halted city wars while the Games went on. Few expected Bosnia's warring factions to follow that example but the presence of athletes from all of Yugoslavia's former republics, under varying conditions, was hailed as a great victory by Mr Samaranch.
By way of celebration, he announced that he would run for another term when his tenure expires next year. That would take him through the IOC's centenary, in 1994, and the centenary of the modern Games themselves, in Atlanta in 1996. The word behind the scenes was that his re-election was far from certain, with the Mexican IOC member and multi-millionaire Mario Vazquez Rana lobbying enthusiastically for the job.
As the quadrennial show began, everyone who is anyone was in town. The line-up included Nelson Mandela, who said he was 'thrilled' to see South Africa back on the Olympic stage under a newly designed flag. A 22-year-old light-flyweight boxer, Abram Hkewafana Thwala, will be the first South African to compete when he steps into the ring today.
Even before the ceremony started, the Games' first scandal erupted when the German shot-putter, Kalman Konya, was dropped from the team after refusing a random dope test. It was an early, ominous echo of the 1988 Ben Johnson affair, even as Johnson himself was rumoured to have gone underground, possibly in Portugal, for intensive training for a renewed attack on the 100 metres sprint. 'He's fast. He's been holding back. Watch out,' one Canadian sports writer warned. Johnson's coach, John Cannon, was asked by reporters how the other sprinters felt about running a relay with the man who disgraced himself, his country and the Olympic ideal. 'You just have to pass the baton, you don't have to hold hands,' he said.
As in Seoul, the differing styles of Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson are already in evidence. Even before the Games opened, Lewis, billed here as el hijo del viento (the son of the wind) was everywhere - in training, on television, on giant billboards and in the newspapers. Although he did not qualify for the sprint events and is down only for the long jump, the smart money is on an unexpected Lewis sprint appearance, perhaps in the relay.
Tighter drugs checks, inspired by Johnson's ignominy and the collapse of Communism, are likely to be the two most important factors that make these the most 'complete' Olympics for many years. Germany will compete as one nation for the first time since the Second World War. The tennis player Boris Becker, 'roughing it' in the Olympic village, was much sought after by autograph hunters. He arrived late after dental treatment and showed off a shiny gold crown. On recent form, that could be the only gold he has when the Games end on 9 August.
The former Soviet states are in Barcelona. So, too, is Cuba, with President Fidel Castro on hand to watch his team take part in the opening parade. Not all the 172 teams in the parade were equally well received by the crowd. The Iranians stood out as the only team whose national name-plate was carried by a man. They refused to allow a woman to do the job. The team representing their Iraqi neighbours was booed and jeered as it entered the stadium.
The 27-strong Bosnia-Herzegovina team, by contrast, received a rousing welcome. They were flown out of Sarajevo with the help of United Nations troops and an IOC-chartered plane, to join their former Yugoslav compatriots from Croatia and Slovenia. Bosnia's 3,000 metres runner, Mirsada Buric, flew in after training in defiance of Sarajevo snipers. Arriving on Barcelona's flag- and bunting-lined avenues, she and her team mates described their journey as a voyage 'from hell to paradise'. Teams from three other former Yugoslav republics - Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia - were missing. After diplomatic compromise, all three were barred from the parade but allowed to take part in the Games under the neutral Olympic flag.
Perhaps one of the more striking changes this year is in track fashion. The days of baggy shorts and floppy shirts a la Chariots of Fire are long gone. In are knee-length bodysuits designed for their aerodynamic qualities but likely to distract many television viewers across the world. The bare-midriff Lycra outfits to be worn by the Australian women athletes have been accurately described as 'fairly exciting'.
According to the local media, some of the more conservative Spaniards may be taken aback by the groin-hugging costume worn by the British sprinter Linford Christie. Christie was described by one onlooker as 'carrying all before him' during a training session on Thursday. The runner himself says his suit has 'an exhilarating psychological effect', similar to the body-shaving tradition among swimmers.
Talking of skin-hugging outfits, among those most angered by the Games are Barcelona's transvestites and prostitutes. In an effort to keep the seamier side of the city hidden, the authorities have moved them from their traditional city-centre sites to an isolated industrial estate. They have already held protest marches and are threatening to do so again.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content