OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Bucks in abundance and a cast of billions: Guy Hodgson reports from Barcelona as the flame is lit at the opening of the 1992 Olympic Games

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The Independent Online
THE Olympic Games Barcelona has craved for five decades was officially opened last night. In the Montjuic Stadium first built in the hope of staging the 1936 Games, the Catalan capital welcomed the Olympic torch 56 years after its arrival was first anticipated. Not for nothing is it known as the eternal flame.

Before a backdrop of hundreds of dancers, musicians, singers, a stadium crowd of 65,000 and a television audience of 3.5 billion, King Juan Carlos of Spain got the Games under way with the words 'I declare open the Games of Barcelona celebrating the XXV Olympiad of the modern era.'

With that the Olympic flag and torch entered the stadium and Antonio Rebollo, a paraplegic archer, fired a flaming arrow to ignite a plume of gas streaming high on one wall of the stadium. Not a special effect had been forgotten.

Earlier, the teams, 12,000 athletes, and officials representing the 172 nations competing in Barcelona, had staged the traditional march past. More than 380 of them came from Britain with Steven Redgrave, the double rowing gold medallist, carrying the Union Jack at their head. Among the parading countries was South Africa, their competitors allowed in the Games for the first time since 1960.

It was an occasion in keeping with the over-glossed tradition of the Olympics of recent times, but for all the the pomp and ceremony the underlying theme could not be wholly camouflaged. Let the contest begin: the real one in Barcelona, the one for the Olympic spirit.

At face value these Games represent the most united since 1972. Boycott, the malicious word that has marred the Olympic movement at its last four congregations, is not in the vocabulary in Barcelona.

More countries are taking part, and more athletes will attempt to be faster, higher or stronger than ever before. No country has felt the need to reject an invitation to the party. Yet for all the words of Barcelona's mayor, Pasqual Maragall, who has expressed the hope that the Games will go down in history 'as those which united in the new Europe all the countries in the world', the Olympic rings are pulling in opposite directions as never before. The soul of the Olympics created and nurtured by Baron Pierre de Coubertin is definitely ill.

Three factors will dominate the Barcelona Games: drugs, money and capacity. They will be recurring themes that will linger no matter how many medals Nick Gillingham brings back to Britain or how fast Michael Johnson runs.

The most pressing problem that corrodes at the essence of the 'it is better to compete than to win' ethos is the use of artificial stimulants. Four years ago Bob Goldman, a prominent Chicago sports physician, polled 198 leading sportsmen asking them whether they would take a hypothetical wonder drug that would kill them in five years but would guarantee winning performances until then. Fifty-two per cent said yes.

Nobody will personify that chilling response more than Ben Johnson. Four years on from the time the Canadian exposed Olympic excellence to be a sham, he will be back at the Games trying to win the blue riband 100 metres legally after winning and losing it illegally in Seoul. Quite where the Olympic movement would be if the most notorious drug user in its history were to succeed now, is anyone's guess. But it would not be far from the gutter.

Yet the circumstances that urged Johnson to take drugs still thrive. Success means riches, greed means cheating. An athlete, be it an obscure east European weightlifter or a high profile track performer, will be caught during these Games. Many, many more will have successfully hidden their steroid abuse with masking agents.

Money used to be regarded with as much distaste as drugs by the International Olympic Comittee, but now they seem hooked on it. Commercialisation is not so much rife in Barcelona as spreading like a plague and the IOC's numbered Swiss account is reported to have risen from pounds 2m in 1980 to around pounds 120m now.

The flip-side to the bulging bank balance is sponsorship. If anything moves in Barcelona it has a multi-national name on it; if it moves in an interesting way television companies, who have paid astronomical sums for the rights, will film it. NBC, the American company, have paid dollars 400m alone. The Olympics is big business; big business has paid for it to be so.

Hand in hand with the cash mountain has come the man mountains of cash, the United States basketball team. The 'dream team', the pick of the NBA, earn around dollars 100m a year from commercial and playing activities, and no one would dispute their credentials to be in Barcelona in terms of ability.

But what pleasure anyone will derive from seeing the basketball competition turning into a Harlem Globetrotters-type exhibition is beyond anyone but the American selectors.

It will not be sport. Having over-paid tennis players, who already have four peaks of achievement in their grand slam tournaments every year, competing for gold medals was enough of an obscenity against the Olympic ideal. But to diminish the basketball tournament into a plaything for multi-millionaires will only increase the volume of those who regard the Olympics as a monstrous circus.

It is not as if the IOC are not looking for reasons to cut sports as it is. Barcelona is bursting at the seams with competitors and warnings have gone out that capacity has a finite limit.

At Atlanta in four years' time the Games will have to accommodate the extra nations of the old Soviet Union who this time compete under the CIS banner plus any other countries that have been created in the meantime.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC president, has asked for a blueprint to be drawn up that could exclude sports that have gone past their sell-by date, including Greco-Roman wrestling, the modern pentathlon and even boxing. 'Whatever shape we take,' he says, 'the Games will not get bigger. There will be fewer events and there will be a limit of 10,000 competitors.'

Manchester made a presentation to the IOC this week in its attempt to hold the Games in 2000. If its bid is successful, the Olympics will be very different to the circus in Barcelona. If there are any Games at all.