OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: State of flux as gold rush: Guy Hodgson reports how the King of Spain has helped boost his country's medal tally

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a feature of the Olympic Games so far. Spanish television cameras skip from sport to sport with only one invariable: King Juan Carlos is always there.

The king, aided by what must be a superb personal transport system, has cast his royal eye over so many events in Barcelona since the opening ceremony that viewers have been baffled that he has appeared to be in three different places at the same time. 'The Ubiquitous One' was how a Spanish newspaper cartoonist christened him this week.

He has been choosing his events wisely, too. Spain had won only five gold medals before the Olympic flame was carried into the Catalan capital; now, with 11 from these Games, they have their greatest haul of bullion since the Aztec treasure chest was plundered in the 16th century.

And either by brilliant fortune or with the sort of judgement that might make the divine right of kings fashionable again, Juan Carlos has been present on almost every occasion the Spanish anthem has accompanied a medal ceremony. He was in the Olympic pool when Martin Lopez Zubero took the 200 metres backstroke gold. He was present, too, for the host nation's successes in the 20- kilometre walk, judo, cycling and sailing, giving a 'by royal perusal' tag to the home victories which allow the Spanish a unique opportunity to open their newspapers and see a medal table without fear of developing an inferiority complex.

Spain are sampling the rarefied air of fifth place in the table behind the Olympic heavyweights of the Unified Team, the United States and Germany instead of scrambling round the foothills along with Surinam, Mongolia and Malaysia. Spanish machismo is hard to maintain when you are vying with Qatar for 90th place.

Spain's rare exposure to the risk of vertigo is not the only reason why the medal table is likely to be very different in Atlanta in four years' time. India, which will have the world's biggest population by 2010, and South Africa are bound to have an effect sooner or later while the tragedy of Yugoslavia must end sometime to allow whatever political entities are left to resume sporting competition.

The Unified Team are top in Barcelona but it will take a sporting revolution to match the political one of recent times for Russia to achieve anything like the same success on their own. There is talk that the former Soviet states may compete as one again in 1996 but given the anxiety of states like Georgia, the Ukraine, Armenia and Belarus to reinforce their nationhood it is unlikely the political strains will allow a blurring of sporting ones. Russia, on their own, will still be a force, but nowhere near as potent.

A breakdown of the Unified Team's successes show that Russia is still predominant, but only just. Almost a third of their 42 golds have been won by members of the first republic in the old Soviet empire, but just behind is Belarus, thanks to Vitaly Shcherbo's virtual monopoly of the gymnastics, winning six golds.

The prospect of the unity of the Unified Team being a transient thing means the United States will finish top in Atlanta and remain there for the foreseeable future with only Germany and China - 16 golds in Barcelona compared to 20 in all the other Games put together - within reach.

But what if the US, like the old Soviet empire, also competed on a state-by-state basis? Just short of a quarter of the 610-strong American team hails from California, including the entire volleyball and water polo squads. At Seoul the state would have finished fourth in the medals table with 15 golds, six short of the rest of the United States put together. Not for nothing is it known as the Golden State.

That 1988 tally was boosted by all eight American individual swimming victories and the relative failure this time in the pool has restricted the state's gold run to just eight individual victories and a possible further two, on a pro-rata basis, in the relays. The next two days will almost certainly bring an improvement.

Spain, meanwhile, are also hoping to increase their medal tally. Tonight the home team meet Poland in the football final while at the Vall d'Hebron tennis centre this afternoon a further two golds could be won. The Spaniards, who regard their king as a talisman, hope Juan Carlos will be there. 'He brings luck wherever he goes,' Felix Cano, Spain's principal baseball pitcher, said. The ubiquitous one is also the golden Juan.

Medal table, page 47