A sport tragic jogs a couple of quiet laps around Barcelona’s famous venues.
Is there any place on earth more desolate than a former Olympic site? It’s been sixteen years since the Barcelona Games, and the party was well and truly over by the time I arrived.
Last month’s newspapers fluttered against the fences surrounding the Estadi Olimpic in Montjuic Park, a boy kicked a soccer ball against the wall under the long-extinguished torch, and a lone jogger and a Bus Turistic passed but didn’t stop.
Yet for two weeks in 1992, this area was packed with cheering crowds. Kieren Perkins won the 1500m in the pool. In the stadium, Carl Lewis took long jump gold and Linford Christie at 32 became the oldest ever winner of the 100m.
A gate was open and it was free to walk inside. The Olympic stadium was all but empty, and is apparently only half-filled when soccer team Espanyol play here. The team of Barcelona’s immigrants is nowhere near as popular as its glamorous Catalan neighbour Barcelona FC, and Espanyol is planning a move to another ground.
Next door to the stadium, the flash new Museu d’Olimpic i d’Esports has opened. I was the only visitor until a handful of other tragics joined me. I was able to check the brakes on Miguel Indurain’s Tour de France-winning bike and I’ve never been so close to a Formula 1 racing car. No-one was watching. If I’d been able to fit my legs into the cockpit I could have gone for a spin.
There was a pair of Michael Jordan’s basketball shoes, displays of boxing gloves and hockey sticks down the ages and ancient and modern cricket bats. It was all a bit perfunctory, though the building was impressive and the toilets very smart indeed.
In the Olympic section were costumes from the 1992 opening ceremony, looking slightly worse for wear, though it was nice to be reminded of the big mechanical runner powered by four cyclists. There was information about past Olympic greats, including our Dawn Fraser. Thorpie seemed to have gone missing, though.
The Juan Antonio ‘The winner is Sy-de-ney!’Samaranch Collection featured presents he received from various world governments during his 21 years as IOC president. Possibly donating them to the museum helped him dispel nagging accusations of corruption, but more likely Senora Samaranch told him she was tired of those things cluttering up the mantelpiece.
Most fun I found the interactive exhibits where we mortals could test ourselves against the stars. My legs were still feeling the effects of walking up a hundred steps to the site (taking the bus would have felt like cheating) so that no doubt accounted for the lack of spring in my high jump and my slight stiffness on the exercise bike.
I was particularly interested in the soccer-coaching computers, with bird’s eye and sideline views of each moment of a game, and a red squiggly line recording every player’s movements. The featured match was the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy. Unfortunately the computer wouldn’t let me re-run the Zinedine Zidane squiggle to see the head-butt incident leading to his infamous end of career send-off.
Across town, Barcelona FC had no problem attracting visitors to its stadium Camp Nou. It was even more crowded than the Picasso Museum. At first I thought a game must be starting, but the fans were queuing just to see the famous ground itself. I parted with enough money to buy a season pass to lesser clubs and bought a ‘Tour Plus’ ticket.
We were hustled into an auditorium where we put on 3D glasses to watch the ‘virtual tour’ film entitled ‘Mes que un club’. My Catalan is even worse than my Spanish, but my best guess is that this means ‘more than a club.’ Music blared, the Barca logo spun and we zoomed into Camp Nou in a way calculated to induce instant motion sickness. For ten minutes jerky computer models of Barcelona’s stars kicked a virtual ball around and virtual Ronaldinho slammed home a virtual goal. The house lights came on and we handed back our 3D glasses with a muttered ‘Gracias’.
The arena itself was temporarily closed due to training – heaven forbid that fans should get to see a non-virtual player – so we proceeded up the ramp to the museum. Excited groups of youngsters in club tracksuits, including groups from Germany, Kuwait and the UK dashed past displays of ancient football gear to take mobile phone photos of golden boots in a glass case.
Upstairs was an exhibition, with English commentary, on the club’s Swiss founder Joan Gamper, who in 1899 kicked a ball around on the weekends with a couple of British mates. There were displays of historic Barcelona football cards, Barcelona table football sets, and rather stiff reconstructions of an ancient gym, changing shed and administration office, as well as photos of legendary past players including Kubala, Cruyff and Maradona.
The diehard Barca fans had already been dragged downstairs by the kids, and were shuffling through the locker rooms. When I joined them, after standing in another queue for twenty minutes, I was naturally thrilled to glimpse the showers, hot tub, massage table and whiteboard. A whiteboard?? You mean, Barcelona doesn’t have a computer with red squiggles to show player movement? Could it be that we’d been shown the visitors’ change rooms by mistake?
In an alcove off the players’ race was a chapel, where the boys could whip in and ask for a little help with the big matches. Soccer fan and former goalkeeper Pope John Paul II held a lifelong Barcelona membership ticket, granted after he performed a mass for 120,000 here in 1982. So it’s logical that Barca should be God’s team too.
At last we filed out past the holy ground of the pitch. Had it not been for the security man, I could have touched the turf. Everybody took photos of each other, and for a small extra fee some fans had their photos taken holding hands with a cardboard cut-out Ronaldinho (yes, I know he’s moved on now – this was last year’s adventure).
The Tour Plus ended inevitably with a trip through the Megastore. For just under $150 you could buy a Ronaldinho shirt, or get the kids ‘Ronaldinho-inspired’ shinguards. The guy is earning back a fair whack of his pay packet without even strapping on the golden boots, but I found the temptation to splurge on merchandise totally resistible.
Barca certainly is more than a club – it’s a mighty successful business.