I was eight years old when Barcelona enjoyed its triumphant debut as an Olympic host. Like most other kids my age, I spent the majority of those two balmy weeks in July and August doing my best Linford Christie impression at the local park, while occasionally belting out the euphoric refrain of the Games’ official song. Being so young and geographically inept, I wasn’t sure exactly where this marvellous place was that prompted Freddie Mercury to warble with such gusto, but even so I was pretty much convinced that it must be the most awesome place on Earth.
By the closing ceremony on August 9, 1992, it seemed the entire world agreed. Even now, 20 years on, Barcelona’s Olympic Games are widely considered to be the best planned, best executed and most successful of the modern era. Okay, so the competition isn’t exactly up to much: Los Angeles and Atlanta were blighted by too much commercialism (and the latter a fatal bombing), Athens nearly didn’t happen and Beijing never quite escaped from a huge shadow of human rights controversies. Even so, Barcelona’s Olympic legacy still shines exceptionally bright, making it no surprise that during the bid for this summer's Games, then-London Mayor Ken Livingstone often talking about creating 'Barcelona-on-Thames'.
The numbers alone are staggering. Barcelona had 118 hotels in 1990 – a figure that’s almost tripled in the 20 years since the Games. Meanwhile, tourism now counts for 50% of all visits to the city, up from a modest 25% at the start of the '90s. Now the sixth most popular tourist destination in Europe, 7.5 million people visit Barcelona every single year.
A great deal of them find their way to the Olympic park in Montjuïc – impressive value for a complex originally put in place to host a fortnight’s worth of events. Still, it's hardly surprising to see flip-flopped droves ambling through the park’s winding pathways; right from the planning stage, Barcelona’s Olympic venues were geographically interwoven with the city’s most impressive historical and cultural assets. Just a short stroll east from the gymnastics arena, for example, you’ll find a cable car that’ll take you up to the Castell de Montjuïc, a 17th century fortification boasting incredible panoramic views over the city below. Amble in the other direction and you’re at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalyuna; the city’s most impressive art museum and home to works by Nonell and Picasso. These were here long before Michael Jordan and his USA Dream Team slam-dunked their way to basketball gold, of course – it just took their faces to market them.
At the centre of it all is the Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc (renamed Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in 2001) – the 56,000-seat arena where Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo ignited the Olympic torch with a flaming arrow at the climax of the Games’ opening ceremony. Built in 1927 and heavily refurbished after winning the Olympic bid in 1989, today it’s used sparingly for sports events and concerts and is open to visitors daily between 10am-8pm. Entry is free, but, peering down into the empty bowl at the less-than-pristine running track, a sense of anti-climax is practically inevitable, and not helped by a vaguely apologetic gift shop selling ring-emblazoned tat.
A visit to the neighbouring Olympic & Sports Museum proves a far more enjoyable experience. While there’s obviously a strong focus on the 1992 Games, the multi-level visitor’s centre boasts a dizzying array of sporting memorabilia from across the modern Games’ 115 year history, with everything from antique track and field equipment to vintage posters brought together in an impressive and well-presented collection.
But Barcelona’s Olympic legacy isn’t just about world-class sports facilities (although in iconic diving venue Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc, multi-purpose complex Palau Sant Jordi and the open-air Velòdrom d'Horta, it certainly has them). Massive-scale urban regeneration in the late 1980s prepared Barcelona for the world’s gaze, delivering 70% more green spaces and a completely overhauled seafront area – dubbed Port Olímpic – giving the influx of visitors somewhere to sip sangria and bask in the evening sun once the day’s sporting action was done. Never before had an Olympic host put so much effort into its appearance, and, thankfully for all involved, the €6010million investment turned out to be a thoroughly sound one.
Today, Barcelona’s seafront area is a remarkably active place. The path stretching from the majestic, sail-shaped W Hotel down to the Olympic harbour is perfect for walking, but as I stroll along in the spring sunshine, cyclists, runners and roller-bladers easily outnumber pedestrians. And they’re not the only ones burning through the calories – to my left, locals play volleyball and tennis in open-air sports clubs, while down on the sands sprightly pensioners performing wince-inducing stretches prove that the city’s thirst for athleticism crosses all generations. It’s bizarre – if this were England, it’d be all lobster-tanned layabouts scoffing Mr Whippy.
Perhaps this is Barcelona’s real Olympic legacy, then. Not an enviable international profile, nor a top class portfolio of sporting venues, nor the billions of Euros creamed from soaring tourist numbers, but simply a city of proud, active citizens eager to make the most of urban prosperity. And who knows - if Londoners can put aside their cynicism after this summer's games, perhaps the dream of 'Barcelona-on-Thames' may truly be realised.
easyJet fly to Barcelona from London Southend Airport, with one-way fares starting from £22.99.