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Spanish athletes drop the baton ahead of 2012

The Barcelona European Championships highlighted how track and field has been left in the shadow of Spain’s star-studded other sports.

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Spanish athletes fell short of expectations at the recent European Championships in Barcelona. Photo: eventos-barcelona.com

For any athlete, the unequivocal backing of the head of a national body charged with overseeing the sport to which you have dedicated your life is one of those things surely taken for granted: when King Canute had a hard time of it holding back the waves, a spin doctor with the gyrating power of the planets would have been required to assure the monarch’s subjects that all would come good in the return leg – perhaps a rematch staged under floodlights.

It must then have come as some surprise to Spain’s athletes when the country’s Athletics Federation (RFEA) president, José María Odriozola, laid into his charges who had competed at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona. Odriozola’s own RFEA had boldly predicted a haul of 15 medals -the same number that set a national record in Munich in 2002– presumably expecting the sort of home-soil boost national teams often profit from and with a team of 88 athletes to achieve it.

“I have to create expectation so that people don’t think I don’t believe in them,” explained Odriozola. “We brought with us the strongest team in history, in number and quality. We could have had up to 40 finalists and we had 27. It could have been 10 or 12 more. There were people that performed poorly.”

A half-empty Olympic Stadium in the Catalan capital witnessed just eight of its own athletes on the podium and the Spanish national anthem blared only twice. The championships were dominated by the usual European suspects –Russia, France, Germany and Great Britain– each fielding teams full of youthful verve that enjoyed success in a wide range of disciplines. Spain, though, relied heavily on its ageing stars to climb the medal table and the ribbons draped over Spanish necks were drawn from an area in which the host nation traditionally fares well: middle- and long-distance running.  Not one medal was obtained in field events.

Nuria Fernández and Natalia Rodríguez took gold and bronze respectively in the 1,500m; Arturo Casado and Manuel Olmedo did likewise in the men’s event at the same distance. Spain’s most decorated contemporary athlete, Marta Domínguez, claimed silver in the 3,000m steeplechase, and it required a European record by Yuliya Zarudneva to deny her another top-level gold. Chema Martínez, in the marathon, and Jesús España, in the 5,000m, added silvers to José Luis Blanco’s bronze, also won in the 3,000m steeplechase. However, this being a European Championship, there were no Americans, Africans, or Caribbean athletes to compete against. In the most recent World Championships in Berlin, Spain managed just two medals.

The immediate problem facing Odriozola is that none of Spain’s successful athletes in Barcelona were on the first lap of their careers: Fernández, 34, and Rodríguez, 31, will continue until the Olympic Games in London in 2012 but probably not much beyond, while Martínez, 38, España, 31, and Blanco, 35, will be surely be viewing the English capital as the floor for one final waltz. Domínguez, at 34, cannot defy the clock for much longer and current 800m number one Mayte Martínez (who finished seventh in Barcelona) is the same age.

“I worry about renewal. I’ve been talking about this for years,” said Odriozola. “We’re not like ostriches, burying our heads in the sand while the good times last, waiting for the rain to come. We’ve been trying to bring through new talent, especially women. We’ve had a generation of 15 or so athletes who are very professional, but we haven’t renewed this. It’s miraculous that these women have dedicated themselves to professionalism, like Mayte Martínez in the 800m. She’s worked her heart out.”

“Bourgeoisie” on the track

Of the Barcelona medallists, only Casado and Olmedo, both 27, represent anything approaching the future of their event. In the wake of the Barcelona disappointment, Odriozola accused Spanish athletes of being “bourgeois.” And the RFEA chief warned that the funeral march may only just have begun.

“Spanish athletics has been reliant on 20 or 30 athletes for years. They are the ones that carry the can while others, those that complain the most and who live on sponsorships, are just making their money to live. They don’t want to compete [in the Diamond League and other events]. They take holidays. They have no desire to go. They don’t have the stimulus that others have and they don’t have the same hunger of those who make their living by competing. This is my complaint.”

However, in a country where thousands will go to see Barcelona FC or Real Madrid simply train, national track and field competitions barely draw crowds that would give a school sports day credence. Odriozola’s challenge is to find the support, both financial and physical, that athletics is lacking. The Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992 inspired today’s top athletes to making the necessary sacrifice but as Spain’s overachieving football and tennis players claim the column inches, cajoling young runners, jumpers and throwers into the relative obscurity of athletics will require more financial resolve.

Tellingly, sprinter Ángel David Rodríguez broke the unofficial party line of track-side interview banalities after the elimination of the men’s 4x100m relay team. Clearly incensed, and live on national television, Rodríguez railed at a lack of funding in the sport and blamed the two-day training camp afforded the sprinters for the baton drop that cost Spain its chance for a final berth. The medal-placing exploits of the France, Germany, Russia and Great Britain relay teams, the brilliance of Christophe Lemaitre, and the dominance of those countries in the sprinting events is certainly the upshot of a huge increase in public and private funding for athletics from the roots up.

“We do what we can, of course, but is a country that doesn’t take much notice of athletics and we are always competing with other sports,” Odriozola said. “And, as we had a period of overachievement, it seems that we have taken a step backwards. People don’t realize that athletics is universal and the competition is strong. In our sport, three of the poorest countries in the world -Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica- already have 30 Olympic medals between them.”

The road to London 2012 is going to be long and arduous for Spanish athletics.





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