Walking out one morning: Barcelona revisited

Is the power of the Olympics to regenerate cities and transform communities a realistic proposition or an unsustainable myth? The Leisure Review went to Barcelona, the shining light of Olympic transformation, to find out.

Barcelona's Olympic Village and a hint of beach


Barcelona's Olympic famous diving pool

From the guest lounge on the thirty-third floor of the Hotel Arts one can see right across Barcelona. Following the line of the shore out across Port Vell, noting the ageing cable car and the statue of Columbus, one's eye is drawn to Montjuic, the rocky outcrop that dominates the western side of the city. Here is the sporting focal point of the 1992 Olympic Games. Barcelona wears its Olympic history with pride and nowhere is it more obvious than here at the Anella Olimpica, the ‘Olympic Ring’, where the flame was lit. However, if we are looking for the lessons of legacy we have to look elsewhere. We have to look down, to the water and the seafront that is now Barcelona’s most captivating attraction.

Barcelona is a city famously transformed by the modern Olympic Games but it is a city and a region with a long history of engagement with the Olympic movement. In 1926 Baron de Coubertin had visited Barcelona to praise the work of the Spanish Olympic Committee and its efforts to host the 1924 Games. The committee applied again, losing out to Germany as the hosts of the 1936 Games, but remained true to the Olympic ideals while others looked the other way. As the swastikas were being prepared for the Berlin Games the International Anti-fascist Conference decided to hold a parallel Olympics in Barcelona but the Popular Barcelona Olympics were thwarted by the coup d’etat that led to the Spanish Civil War. The Olympic movement was left to shake hands with Hitler, an opportunity it embraced with enthusiasm. Barcelona tried again with a bid to host the 1940 Games but by now Hitler had moved on from his Olympic ambitions towards war and the Games were cancelled.

In 1992 Barcelona’s chance finally came and the city grasped the opportunity like no city before or since. The 1992 Games were used to transform large tracts of the city’s seafront and redefine Barcelona as a vibrant, exciting destination. Barcelona was brought into the company of modern European capital cities and the image that came to define the Olympic Games – the diver held for a split second against the backdrop of the city of Gaudi – became the defining image of a city reborn. In the two-hundredth of a second it took for the shutter to open and close a city’s tourism industry was born.

Turning Barcelona to face the sea (as the 1992 Olympic organising committee expressed it) was the greatest achievement of the Barcelona Olympics. Visitors to the city in the 1980s and before might have been surprised to learn that Barcelona was a city with a seafront. What was by then a largely abandoned industrial port had become a dumping ground ignored and forgotten by the rest of the city. Had they decided to visit the port area they would have found little more than container depots and railway yards but the journey from the city centre, crossing a motorway and strolling among the criminals and prostitutes of the then notorious Barceloneta district, would have proved rather exciting.

For the Games the old port – Port Vell – was reinvented as the focal point of seven kilometres of urban seafront, attracting some eighteen million visitors a year. Another Olympic project saw the city’s busy ring road placed partially underground and the route of the Ramblas, the city's most famous street, now has a waterfront extension down to the boats and the yachts that now crowd the marinas. A few minutes walk to the east one finds the Hotel Arts itself, a square skyscraper built specifically for the Games, the Port Olimpic, built as the marina for the ’92 Games, and the Olympic village, where thirty prize-winning architects were tasked with transforming a disused industrial area into a model of urban modernity to house 15,000 people. Under the careful watch of Frank Gehry’s copper Fish the beachfront of the increasingly gentrified Barceloneta is now home to a busy and well-heeled stretch of restaurants and bars, casinos and clubs. Where once the Ramblas was the social heart of the city, now the water is the major draw. Barcelona, it seems, has moved and moved on.

Up on Montjuic the Olympic’s sporting legacy is on display and open for inspection. The Estadi Olimpic, built within the retained façade of the 1929 stadium and featuring the huge Pau Gargallo horse sculptures, is a dramatic venue and as attractive a sporting stadium as one is likely to find. Until 2006 this grand but compact stadium was the home to Espanyol, Barcelona’s ‘other team’, and few lower-league teams can have played in a more impressive venue. Next door the dramatic lines and glass roof of the Palau Sant Jordi creates a dynamic architectural impact at the edge of the great open square of the Placa de Nemesi Ponsati with its repeating pillars, the grandeur of the Santiago Calatrava’s communications tower and the magnificent views of the city below.

However, by 2007, just fifteen years after the Olympics, the harsh economic realities of major venues were illustrated by the poor state of repair of the stadium and the indoor arena; ten million euros were spent on renovation. For all its sporting and architectural glory there is a rather doleful air to the Olympic Ring. On an early autumn mid-week morning in the great stadium the groundsman fastidiously cuts the pitch for a team now relocated and the next crowd to fill the seats and raise a cheer seems a long way off. The Placa de Nemesi Ponsati is deserted and rather windblown. The signs on the gates remind visitors that there should be no ball games or skating. The Piscina de Montjuic, the pool that gave the world that most famous of Olympic images, is closed. The sign above the padlock explains that the facility is open June to August. On the wall nearby one can just make out the ghostly image of the Olympic Rings, once proudly displayed and now long removed.

The Olympic Museum situated in the shadow of the stadium does an excellent job of reminding visitors what is special about sport in general and the Olympics in particular. The diver is there of course but she is now surrounded by fellow competitors, the winners and the vanquished of all sports sharing the special experience of the Olympics. Amid all the images and equipment, the most simple of exhibits seem to convey the Olympic ideal most powerfully: a hurdle signed by Sally Gunnel, Sandra Farmer Patrick and Janeene Vickers; the long jump take-off board, eaten away by the spiked impacts of round after round of competition, signed by Carl Lewis, Mike Powell and Jumpin’ Joe Greene.

As one sways high above Port Vell in one of the Transbordador Aeri’s compact and venerable gondolas heading back to the seafront, there is a feeling that Barcelona’s Olympic triumph lies ahead rather than behind. While the Olympic sports venues stand proud and ready still to serve their purpose, they seem now to belong to a different age, a time when Barcelona needed to prove itself to the world. On the boardwalk of the Barceloneta, in the marinas and the restaurants of the Old Port, there is no such need.


The Leisure Review, November 2008



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“Turning Barcelona to face the sea (as the 1992 Olympic organising committee expressed it) was the greatest achievement of the Barcelona Olympics. Visitors to the city in the 1980s and before might have been surprised to learn that Barcelona was a city with a seafront.”

Santiago Calatrava’s communications tower



The ghost of the Olympic rings

Barceloneta: now transformed

an independent view for the leisure industry








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