In a sporting context, Barcelona is synonymous with the famous Blaugrana of its most successful football club and the 1992 Olympic Games, which proved transformational for the city and are still seen as a benchmark to which other hosts aspire.
With the Games acting as the catalyst, the city revamped its transport, telecommunications and even sewage systems, whilst the previously run-down harbour was converted into a plush $2.4bn (€2.2bn) waterfront development.
Unemployment halved in the six years prior to the Games despite broader economic challenges in Spain and across Europe. Whereas tourism accounted for less than two per cent of the city’s pre-Olympics GDP, the figure increased to 12 per cent in the afterglow of the Games and has remained fairly consistent ever since. Visitor numbers roughly doubled decade-on-decade from 1990 to 2010. As a blueprint for the Olympics’ game-changing credentials, Barcelona takes some beating.
However, the city’s focus since 1992 has not been on attracting the mega-events that its infrastructure was built to accommodate. Instead, as explained by Barcelona City Council’s sports commissioner, David Escudé, smaller, annual events have provided a sustainable post-Games legacy.
“Barcelona wants to ensure that these sporting events are not one-off events, but are repeated, without closing the door to any other events that may be of special interest to the city, provided that they adapt to the criteria the city has set out in terms of environmental and economic sustainability,” Escudé says.
Examples of such events include the Barcelona Marathon, Barcelona Triathlon, the International Equestrian Federation’s (FEI) Jumping Nations Cup Final and the Barcelona Open tennis tournament, which forms part of the men’s ATP Tour.
“Barcelona City Council doesn’t seek the success of one single edition, but rather wants to ensure that these events can be put on year after year,” says Escudé, who adds that “economic return and the positive effect on the Barcelona brand” are always key considerations of whether to submit a bid.
“The main target of these events are city residents, who enjoy seeing the world’s leading sportspeople in their city, and they also generate enthusiasm, especially among young people, which helps to promote sport and its values. These events are also a magnet for sports tourists.”
While many cities will stage a series of smaller sporting events to work their way up to consideration as a potential host of a major multi-sport spectacle like the Olympics, Barcelona’s approach has been the exact opposite.
The Games were used to establish a network of facilities – backed up by improved transport links and accommodation options – that have gone on to handle smaller, less costly events, creating a wide-ranging, vibrant sporting scene. Major one-off sporting occasions have still taken place in the city, but they have more commonly been part of Spain-wide events like the 2013 World Men’s Handball Championships and the 2014 International Basketball Federation (Fiba) World Cup.
“The paradigm of big international sporting events has changed a lot,” Escudé says. “Big European or even world cities no longer choose to organise major world championships, because the cost is prohibitive. Nowadays, major sporting events are in the hands of the world’s economic powerhouses and emerging economies.
“You also have to guarantee the good management and economic viability of the event right from the word go. The more municipal involvement in the organisation of the event, the fewer the risks when the event is actually taking place.”
The political strategy for organising events in Barcelona is set out by the city government at the start of a four-year mandate. This strategy is in line with the municipal government’s roadmap and the city council insists that sport must be linked to the city’s economic and growth policy.
The city council is in the process of fine-tuning proposals, with input from sporting stakeholders, organisations and residents, for a broader sporting strategy that will extend until the end of 2023.
“Barcelona City Council’s political objective is universal access to the practice of sport to ensure that for social, economic, physical or psychological reasons nobody is left unable to do sport in the city,” Escudé says.
Last year, the International Olympic Committee published a report on how Barcelona 1992 was a “model of Olympic legacy”, pointing to youth-focused ‘Sport for All’ programmes that are still in place now as evidence.
There was no Olympic Park created for the Games, with a focus instead on spreading facilities across Barcelona and a new ring-road that significantly reduced traffic congestion in the city centre. Unlike so many other Olympic host cities, Games facilities have avoided the ‘white elephant’ tag, and sporting infrastructure improvements continue to this day.
“Barcelona City Council prioritises the construction of new, permanent sporting facilities that, after the event, become an asset for the city, rather than using temporary facilities that are taken down after,” Escudé says.
The most significant current sports construction project in the city – the ongoing Espai Barça project – is not costing the city council at all, under the terms of an agreement struck with the club in 2016. At a cost of at least €685m, FC Barcelona’s various arenas and facilities will be revamped into some of the most technologically advanced in world sport, with the capacity of the already cavernous Camp Nou increased to 105,000.
The city’s other Primera División football club, RCD Espanyol, moved just over a decade ago to the acclaimed 40,000-seat RCDE Stadium from the 60,000-capacity Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, which served as the centrepiece of the 1992 Games and the 2010 European Athletics Championships.
One of the priorities in the current four-year strategic cycle is to boost the amount of sport that takes place at the Estadi Olímpic to complement numerous cultural events at the venue. The 18,000-seat Palau Sant Jordi indoor arena also stages various concerts and gatherings, aside from sport, while there are plans to convert the Palau Municipal d’Esports, situated in the northern municipality of Badalona, into a more prominent sporting hub.
“Barcelona is an international benchmark in terms of the good management of the legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games,” Escudé explains. “All the Olympic installations are still in a good state of repair and operate perfectly, and they don’t just host sporting events and practice sessions.
“Barcelona has a huge network of sports facilities and installations, ranging from the local neighbourhood facilities to the major Olympic ones. Involvement in sport in the city is on the increase at all life stages, from birth to old age, so the city council must guarantee that city residents have spaces where they can do sport.”
Although Barcelona has favoured more manageable competitions over mega-events in recent years, a potential bid for the 2030 winter Olympic Games is under consideration.
In 2017, the city opted against a bid for the 2026 Games, which were eventually awarded to Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, after deciding that it did not have enough time to develop a winning proposition. At the time, with Spain struggling to recover from the global financial downturn of the late 2000s, Barcelona’s deputy mayor Jaume Collboni said the decision reflected “the current social and economic circumstances, not only in Barcelona but in the whole country”.
After Spain’s economic outlook finally improved – albeit before the unknown inevitable economic fall-out of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak – Olympic ambitions were revisited. In January of this year, the IOC confirmed that it was in talks with Barcelona, Sapporo in Japan and Salt Lake City in the US about hosting the 2030 winter Games.
However, political complications lurk in the background despite the city’s Olympic credentials.
As author John Hargreaves argued in Freedom for Catalonia? Catalan Nationalism, Spanish Identity and the Barcelona Olympic Games, the 1992 event raised tensions between the Spanish government and the region of Catalonia, with both wrestling to ensure their identity was represented on the world stage. In the event, an uncomfortable compromise was found, allowing both identities to be represented, but relations have been strained further in recent years.
When nine nine independence leaders were sentenced by Spain’s Supreme Court last year for their role in organising the 2017 Catalan independence referendum – one never approved by the central government – there were protests across Barcelona. Sporting contests were postponed at the height of the unrest, with major transport interchanges brought to a standstill.
With the prospect of the 2030 Games on the table – possibly in a partnership with the nearby Pyrenees – Spanish IOC vice-president Juan Antonio Samaranch said late last year that “political unity” was crucial or such a proposal would “freeze”.
Whether such matters can be sufficiently resolved remains to be seen. However, for Escudé, a successful sporting strategy for the city is underpinned by continuing to build on the legacy of the Olympics which, remarkably, is still alive and kicking after nearly three decades.
“Barcelona has always been a city that has invited and welcomed all types of big sporting events,” Escudé says. “We are a city with the capacity, knowledge, experience, and most of all passion and enthusiasm for events, and especially sporting ones. We have also proven our expertise in organising and managing major sports events like the Olympic Games and the world championships of different sports.”
An official tilt at the winter Olympics would certainly represent a change in direction for the city. However, few could argue that the city’s infrastructure and track record wouldn’t make it a credible destination for sporting events of any size.