OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: The Games that kept their promise: As the Olympic Games of 1992 fade into the record books, Mike Rowbottom reflects on the curious contrasts of a sporting fiesta

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The Independent Online
THE CLOSING ceremony of the 25th modern Olympics boomed and thundered its way into the consciousness of a television audience of billions. The scene just inside the tunnel at the Montjuic stadium said something too about the Games that kept their promise.

Ranks of teenagers, unselfconsciously clad in blue romper suits, chattered and joked and sporadically applauded as they awaited their cue to join the performance - characters in an Ayckbourn-like backstage drama. When their moment arrived to file into the clamorous arena, they passed a group of white-shirted police officers bearing pump-action machine-guns who were wandering in the opposite direction. It was a curious co-existence, a balance which held throughout a vivid fortnight. The Games were relaxed; the Games were under control.

The threat of terrorism from Basque separatists, thankfully, did not come to pass - the glowering mugshots of the movement's more notorious operators, posted up in doorways of the main Olympic buildings, proved to be their most tangible impression on the event. And for all the abundance of narrow yellow-and-red- striped Catalan flags throughout the cities, those nationalist urges were subsumed into the whole as Spain, and King Juan Carlos, celebrated unprecedented successes in terms of medals.

Competitors from the old Soviet Union, which topped the medal table in 1988, maintained their pre-eminence while representing the 12 individual republics, grouped temporarily as the Unified Team. Competing for the right to raise the Olympic flag does not appear to have been a demotivating factor.

However, there has been a marked falling-off in achievement from other members of the old Eastern bloc following the widespread dissolution of Communist systems. Without the economic support those systems provided, and the accompanying pressure it brought to bear on individuals to win for the glory of the state, countries such as Bulgaria - whose medal total was half that of Seoul - Poland and Czechoslovakia found themselves struggling. The odds are against the possibility that the 12 republics from the former Soviet Union will be able to avoid a similar slump by the time of the Atlanta Games of 1996.

The most startling of the movers and shakers in the 1992 medals table has been China, which almost doubled its medal total of four years ago - 54 this time, 28 then. But the impressiveness of their performance is tempered by a suspicion that the input of the many coaches who have moved to the Republic in the wake of the political changes in eastern Europe may not be totally legitimate. The International Olympic Committee, which has made much of its intentions to co-ordinate random drug-testing on a worldwide basis, would appear to have a challenging field of operation here.

The success of the host nation has been equally as dramatic as that of the Chinese - the Spaniards' total of 13 gold medals is three times as many as they have earned in their entire history at the Olympics. Behind the exuberance of Fermin Cacho's delighted charge down the finishing straight in the 1500 metres final, behind Francisco Narvaez's last-minute winning goal in the football final which ignited delight in a Nou Camp stadium crowd of 95,000 people, lies a huge campaign involving 23 companies who were persuaded to sponsor the team once Barcelona learned it would host the Games.

That investment paid off; so did the larger investment which Barcelona, and Spain, made as Olympic hosts. Having remodelled their waterfront and dotted their city with stylish new sporting venues - or, in the case of the main Montjuic stadium, artfully modified sporting venues - the taxpayers of the Catalonian capital are unlikely to face the kind of debt which the inhabitants of Montreal are still labouring to clear after the financially disastrous Games of 1976. There remains, however, a dispute between local and national government over who is liable for a dollars 250m ( pounds 130m) overspend.

The trend of profitability, set in 1984 by the Los Angeles Games and carried on at Seoul four years ago, looks to have been maintained. The precedent is there for Atlanta four years hence; the incentive is there for those bidding to host the Games beyond that. John Major's diligent presence in Barcelona has apparently improved the delicate climate of opinion surrounding Manchester's chances of securing the Games of 2000. Perhaps the jokes about badminton in Bury and weightlifting in Wythenshawe may need reviewing.

It was a sad irony that Britain, which has pursued a hard-line on drug-taking for several years, should have to be the ones to apologise to the host nation after the first drug scandal of the Games - albeit one that stemmed from tests conducted well before the Games began.

The number of athletes who tested positive for illegal substances during Olympic competition was just five, compared to the 10 who showed up in Seoul. But the comfort Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC Medical Commission, has derived from that figure is questionable. Perhaps Manfred Donike, Germany's leading drugs expert, is right in his assumption that those caught had simply been misinformed by the black-market handbook on drug use which has been circulating the athletes' Olympic village, which claimed that clenbuterol - the stimulant and anabolic agent which has cropped up in conversation almost as much as the buzzword 'focused' in these Games - disappeared from the system within 24 hours of being taken.

There is no doubt that Carl Lewis is right when he says that drug-free sport will only come in a drug-free society.

The charges of over-commericalism laid against the Olympic movement as it is now, which found ready focus in the decision of the IOC president, Juan-Antonio Samaranch, to award the gold medals personally to the United States' mega-professional, mega-rich, mega-victorious basketball players, will become more muted if the Games can find some way of maintaining the current mix of competitors.

However, it looks as if, in the face of an increasingly over-burdened programme, the more anachronistic Olympic sports, such as modern pentathlon, will be given the old heave-ho, and sports laden with commercial potential, such as golf, will be given the come-on.

But for now it is enough to reflect on what the Barcelona Games have provided in the way of enduring memories. We have seen Lewis win his seventh and eighth Olympic gold medals, restating his case for being considered the most complete athlete of his era. We have seen Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell win - and the stricken Derek Redmond finish. We have seen the Cubans become lords of the boxing ring. We have seen the Unified Team remain lords of the high rings. We have seen the leader in the women's high hurdles lose all after coming to grief over the last barrier; we have seen the unexpected winner run crazed with joy back up to the starting line - a Greek bearing her own gift.

There are more than enough memories to last until Atlanta. Barcelona delivered.

(Photograph omitted)