Were you blown away by the American Dream Team basketball champions or Belarusian gymnast Vitaly Sherbo’s incredible performances during the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona? We recap the cultural significance of the best cultural legacy in modern Olympic history.
Today, the word Barcelona sounds like bright white beaches, romantic side streets, and unfinished cathedrals that stretch toward the sky; it sounds like fierce Catalonian pride, the roar as Lionel Messi scores, Picasso’s staggering art, and Freddie Mercury’s Olympic anthem. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1986, there wasn’t even a beach. Instead, Barcelona’s waterfront areas were an industrial park, so any tourists or locals had to travel about forty-five minutes just to go swimming. What changed? 1986 was the year Spain got the chance to host the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, bringing the whole world to a city that had only recently come alive again.
In the late 1980s, Spain had begun to write a brand-new chapter. Without the influence of the oppressive dictator Francisco Franco, the country had built a democracy, grown its economy, and united its people–all in the span of about fifteen years. Hosting the Olympic Games in Barcelona would spotlight the hard work Spain had put into returning the country to its people, and it would give the city a much-needed opportunity to pour funding into renovation projects. The Catalonians, who had suffered under Franco’s regime, were proud of their city. They were quick to seize the economic and cultural opportunities that hosting the Games would provide, using the thrill of energy and capital to finish projects that would transform Barcelona into a world-famous getaway.
Part of the struggle was keeping the Olympic improvements from turning the newly-built accommodations into sad, abandoned structures once the Games were over. It’s easy to create a bunch of new buildings to make up for people pouring into a city for a few short weeks, but much more difficult to craft thoughtful buildings and structures designed to work for the citizens as well as the visitors. That’s why the first order of business was a grand-scale idea, designed to double Barcelona’s tourist potential and improve the lives of its citizens: the beach. Historically, Barcelona has been a city that “turned its back on the sea,” which is to say that the area near the sea was comprised of a series of crumbling and ugly industrial parks. Determined to clean up the area and turn it into a more livable space, the city designed a brand-new Olympic Marina–and a beach. Importing sand from Egypt and palm trees from Hawaii, they created a gorgeous beach that stretched for miles around the city. They turned their energy toward building not only hotels, but apartment buildings and homes near this new beach, with young couples and families in mind. It worked. Once the Games were over and all the tourists and athletes had gone home, the Barcelona citizens continued to enjoy the sparkling sea, lovely beaches, and world-class hotels and apartment buildings.
Of course, hotels and a space for tourists to enjoy themselves weren’t the only things necessary for the Olympic Games in Barcelona–the actual athletic centers were important, too! Rather than make one enormous Olympic Games space, the city instead made four large sections in four vertexes of the city. They connected the four areas with brand-new roads, so that anyone visiting had to go explore another part of Barcelona in order to reach the other space. Not only that, but the areas they designed showed off the city in the best way possible. The image of a diver, flipping into what looks like the whole of Barcelona, is one of the most famous of the Games. Once the Olympics were over, the city allowed the citizens to use these incredible sports structures for themselves. For tourists, the structures are still available to explore.
Adding tourism value and sports centers are important, sure, but they’re missing the one quality that made the Barcelona Olympics the Games with the most incredible legacy: the cultural impact. Legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury teamed up with Catalonia native Montserrat Caballé to write and perform the Olympic anthem “Barcelona,” the popularity of which only bolstered the city’s fame worldwide and became a symbol for the Olympic Games in Barcelona. As it was one of Mercury’s final songs before his tragic death in 1991, the song held a special legacy.
Music wasn’t all, however. Hosting the Olympic Games in Barcelona transformed Spanish culture, leaving behind a national dedication to sports that allowed the country to produce some of the world’s finest athletes. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are two of the most famous football clubs in the world, and Cristiano Ronaldo is a household name in the United States as surely as he is in Madrid. But the Games represented even more than a celebration of sports: they were a way for Catalonia and Spain to celebrate their triumph after a long period of darkness. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant that Germany could compete together; the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that Estonia, Latvia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and Lithuania could compete as their own countries for the first time in almost sixty years. After a thirty-year period of various countries boycotting the Games, everyone decided to compete. When the opening ceremony kicked off, the world stood in Barcelona as one.