Thursday, July 26, 2007

Remembering 1992, Spain’s moment

A lovely and historic moment last night here in Bcn: the same archer who famously lit the Olympic torch with Elvin accuracy while the world watched , was invited back for a redo to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Games.

The archer, Antonio Rebollo, appears to be aging like a fine Rioja. He met the high expectations of everyone who’d seen his first shot by nailing the target again, this time from outside the stadium—a tough shot, though he did have literally years to prepare (and, most likely, exclusive use of the stadium area for target practice, along with that cool white outfit) .

Most Barcelonans look back proudly on their famous Summer Games, “the best ever,” according to ex-Olympic Committee honcho Juan Antonio Samaranch (a Catalan). They were certainly the best Olympics I have ever been to. Although I was only 14, the trip I took with my father to Spain that summer was unforgettable—in retrospect, it’s clear what a watershed year it was for the country, one which set it on the path to its current esteemed place in Europe.

With the crazy decade of the Movida (popularized by Almodovar in his early films) following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain had already undergone a notable transition into capitalist democracy. But 1992 set the world’s eyes on the country in a way that can’t easily be repeated.

Madrid was named the cultural capital of Europe, and Sevilla was hosting the funky futuristic World Expo. Both of these medium-term events brought with them significant monetary, cultural, and infrastructural advances. The crowning jewel of this Year of Spain was the public unveiling of the hip new Barcelona. During the Olympics, it really was a magical city filled with a palpable spirit of glee and camaraderie. It was like the good old days: the city looked gorgeous and shiny and new, the events and housing went off without a hitch, and the US Dream Team even won the Gold Medal in basketball (though they spurned the spartan Olympic Village accomodations for a luxury hotel). The sporting highlight for me was making my first trip to the Nou Camp stadium (which I revisited in June to watch Barcelona throw away their season by giving up a last-minute tie to crosstown rivals Espanyol) for the gold medal soccer match, which the hosts won by scoring with 2 minutes left against Poland. Imagine 100,000 Spaniards going bonkers in a stadium-shaking, flag-waving goosebumpfest, singing the classis Olé! Olé Olé Olé! song for hours afterward. I was hooked.

As amazing as the Games were, the real triumph of Barcelona '92 was one of urban planning, toward the long-term goal of achieving a fully integrated and dynamic city of international reknown.

As most residents will explain to guests—say, upon bringing them to the Olympic Village, beach areas, or Montjuic—much of the city was renovated or rebuilt in preparation for the Games. The scale of investment and work is staggering, but it has become a paragon of large-scale urban renewal projects around the world, a phenomenon still being studied today.

This is not to say that the operation was carried out perfectly, because it wasn’t, but one simply cannot compare the pre- and post-Olympic Barcelonas. Barcelona’s current success and beauty are the result of a bold (yet logical, I would think) vision, good teamwork, and not-that-much corruption getting in the way.

In preparation for the Games, the inustrialized and largely abandoned beachfront, several km worth, was cleaned up and re-introduced to the city; the Olympic Village was turned into long-term housing; it served as the motor for the eventual comeback of the industrial, bleak Poble Nou neighbourhood. A new wave of renovations continues, as Barcelona expands its seafront amenities and Poble Nou (perhaps the Williamsburg of Bcn) renovation toward the Diagonal Mar area, while also consolidating the infrastructure of the Old Town and Eixample. Projects like Diagonal Mar and the Forum will be the subject of future posts, but for now imagine them as new pieces being added on to geographically essential areas of the larger urban grid. (If you’re interested in getting a handle on the city’s history, neighborhoods, and the scope of urban renewal over the last 20 years, check out the Barcelona Field Studies center; For those of you wondering what happens when Olympic games fail on an urban renewal level, look no further than Atlanta ’96.)

A simple stroll around the old town reveals that Barcelona has always been a uniquely beautiful Euro city. However one cannot comprehend its ascent to one of the coolest cities in Europe without knowing about the Olympic project. That’s why, sitting on Bogatell beach, I always compare it with the happy scene of 15 years ago; I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I’m lucky to have developed such a personal connection with this special place, and I’m going to miss it very much.

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