Viva Espana: Democracy's influence on a sporting nation

Carlos Sastre, Rafael Nadal and Spain's footballers have turned the nation from a sleeping to a sporting giant this summer. Pete Jenson in Madrid uncovers the roots of a modern awakening
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Spain's image as a country whose national sport is taking a two-hour nap in the afternoon has been revolutionised by its meteoric rise to the status of European sporting superpower.

It has just enjoyed the most successful two-month period in its sporting history, beginning with the cyclist Alberto Contador's Tour of Italy victory at the start of June and ending with Carlos Sastre's Tour de France win at the weekend. An amazing nine weeks included the football team's Euro 2008 win and Rafael Nadal's Wimbledon victory seven days later.

Over 22 million viewers tuned in to watch Fernando Torres' goal beat Germany in the Euro 2008 final – almost half the country's 45 million population. The huge screens that were mounted in Madrid's Plaza Colon so that over 200,000 people could watch each of Spain's matches during the tournament might just have well been erected at the start of summer and still be standing now.

Such has been the clamour to enjoy Spain's long-awaited success – a phenomenon made all the more breathtaking by the backdrop of decades of underachievement. When, on 29 June, Spain's footballers won Euro 2008 it was the first time for 44 years they had been able to celebrate winning a major trophy.

The outstanding team of the tournament, who also boasted the competition's top scorer in David Villa, Spain equalled the achievement of 1964 when they beat Russia 2-1 to win their only other major football honour.

Likewise a week later, when Nadal could be seen clambering over seats at Wimbledon to embrace first his family and then the Spanish royal family after beating Roger Federer, he was celebrating becoming the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon since Manolo Santana in 1966.

With Nadal now on the brink of becoming the world No 1, and the Olympic Games due to commence in China on 8 August, giving a very confident Spanish team the chance to add more medals to the haul, there are no signs of the extraordinary winning streak coming to an end.

And it is a run that dates back to the last Olympics. Since Athens 2004 Spain has won 66 medals in world championships and 114 in European competitions, according to statistics supplied by the country's Department of Sport.

In those four years Nadal has won five Grand Slams, Spanish cyclists have won three of the four Tour de France titles and the nation has been crowned European champions of football, and world champions of basketball in 2006, handball in 2005 and volleyball in 2007.

Fernando Alonso has won two Formula One world titles while on two wheels Jorge Lorenzo was 250cc champion twice and Alvaro Bautista 125cc champion once. There are high hopes of more successes in Beijing at the Olympics and the swing from bit-part players to protagonists has not come about by accident.

The dividends of a modern electoral democracy still just 26 years young have begun to show themselves, argues the leading sports writer Juan Jose Mateo of Spain's most widely circulated newspaper El Pais.

"Democracy and integration into Europe has brought greater investment and diet, medical care, coaches and training facilities have all improved," he says.

"The first generation of Spaniards born into a democracy are on average nine centimetres taller than those born in the first years of the dictatorship."

The president of Spain's Olympic Committee, Alejandro Blanco, agrees that changes in the way sport is supported in Spain have a lot to do with the massive improvement in results.

"Of course the medal is solely for the sportsman for his effort and dedication," he says. "But it also owes something to the magnificent work of so many coaches. The era when these people were just solitary figures working alone has long been left behind."

The success has even gone some way to uniting a divided nation – the "Catalunya is not Spain" banners prevalent at Barcelona v Real Madrid matches were not in sight as the vast majority of Catalans celebrated Spain's Euro 2008 victory – achieved as it was thanks to monumental performances from Catalans, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas.

Even the economic slump that has seen unemployment rise and the housing market grind to a halt has not been able to wipe the smile off Spaniards' faces.

There were fears that President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero might jinx Spain's Euro 2008 final appearance if he attended. An internet campaign to keep him away failed and Zapatero was present. But it made no difference to the final score.

In 2008 it seems nothing can stop Spanish sport.

... and look out for more conquistadors at Beijing Games

Had Spain sent players such as Cesc Fabregas and David Silva to last year's European Under-21 Championship, they might have had an Olympic title to add to their senior European version this year.

But if football is not going to produce any medals for Spain at the Beijing Games which get under way on 8 August, there are high hopes of material gains in several other sports, notably handball, basketball, tennis, hockey, water polo, volleyball and cycling. Alejandro Blanco, the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, believes the 2008 team is stronger than the one which earned 11 medals in Sydney 2000 and 19 in Athens 2004.

Spain are the world champions in men's basketball, and, guided by their NBA star Pau Gasol, will challenge the United States and the defending champions Argentina for the gold. On 17 June Gasol became the first Spaniard to play in a major NBA final when he turned out for the LA Lakers. His team lost out to the Boston Celtics, but it was more evidence of Spain's increasing influence in sport.

The men's volleyball team will also mount a serious effort at gaining the podium, given that they are European champions.

Spain possess the European synchronised swimming champion Gemma Mengual; David Cal (left) is a gold prospect in the C1 1,000 metres canoeing; Javier Gomez has a great chance in the triathlon; while Spain can field a highly promising entrant in the tennis: Rafael Nadal.

Mike Rowbottom

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