The Paseo is sacred in most parts of Spain. It is both an evening stroll and an act of community and yes, a chance for a country that knows little of air-conditioning to lay the breeze upon its sweat.
But something more kept driving ticketless Spaniards up the hill of Montjuïc toward the Olympic Stadium as the Games approached their close, until finally the hillside was so choked that there was no more air or exercise to be had. Something more even than the magical interplay of fountains, rainbow floodlights and music that accompanied one up the steps, a walk up that gave one a floating feeling, as if one were ascending Olympus.
It was as if Spaniards wanted to walk the ground and feel the air where their city had made its mark and their country had come of age, as if they wished their children, for posterity's sake, to drink from the cherubs spouting water at the fountain just outside the stadium. Each night around 10 o'clock the stadium would spill its 65,000 down the hill into the tens of thousands walking up, with the downhillers telling the uphillers, "Did you hear? Peñalver won a silver for us in the decathlon!... We took gold in the 1,500 meters! It was Cacho!"; the uphillers crying, "¡No!"; the downhillers crying, "¡Sí!"; and all of them turning the vast stairway into one unholy clot, not that anybody really gave a damn.
Nobody here ever dreamed the Games would turn out this sweet. Spain, a country that had won only one gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Games and four in the 96-year history of the Summer Olympics, wound up with a stunning 13 golds in Barcelona, and 22 medals overall, not to mention 17 more in the demonstration sports of taekwondo, Basque pelota and roller hockey. Even those four gold medals from the past had hardly seemed tangible to the average Spaniard, coming in the tut-tut sports of yachting and equestrian. But this year's gold haul tasted of red wine and smelled of sweat, coming in games ranging from judo to track to cycling, soccer to field hockey to swimming—along with archery and more yachting.
Other host nations' athletes have ridden the adrenaline rush of local love all the way to the world's highest podium. South Korea's gold medal count doubled in 1988 as compared with its '84 Olympic total. Japan quadrupled its gold in Tokyo in '64. No one, however, could remember a country ever...well, what in the hell is the word for a multiplication of 13 times? One could almost sense this country putting the anemia and torpor of Franco's four decades behind it, a nation reaching up to feel its biceps, down to squeeze its calves and saying, "Yes, we have muscles! Yes, we have sinew!"
"This is proof," said Miguel Ángel Milán, coach of silver medal decathlete Antonio Peñalver. "We are not an inferior race."
A festival held once every four years for men and women in leotards, shorts, jerseys and jockstraps had become the way a country proved to itself it was O.K. "We have succeeded in changing the image of this country," added Javier Gómez-Navarro, Spain's minister of sport. "That image of El Cid. When people thought of Spain before, they thought of folkloric Spain of the old days, the people drinking and dancing in Sevilla, the traditional Spain. These are not bad images, but they are not modern. We wanted to tell the world, Yes, Spain still has castles, but it is also a modern country. We wanted to prove that we can organize a successful meeting, and that is what we have done."
Presiding over it all, shining their regal smiles upon virtually every homegrown triumph, were King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía. Apprised by walkie-talkie of the latest fortunes of every Spanish medal contender, the royal couple would rush to venues from morning until midnight to root their subjects down every home stretch, through every wave, up every hill. Of course the king was there to console his son, Prince Felipe, who finished sixth in yachting's Soling class. But more important, he was there to bear-hug Catalonia's Natalia Vía Dufresne following her silver medal performance in the Europe class, squeezing a shocked "ahhhh!" from her lungs; there to salute Basque pelota players Josú Mugartegui and Juan Antonio Compañón for their triumph in the cesta punta final; there to celebrate a goal by Asturias's Abelardo Fernández during Spain's 3-2 gold medal soccer win. At the Basque pelota site, filled with men who harbor dark hatred for anything smelling of monarchy or central government, the largely Basque crowd greeted the king with a standing ovation. Day after day he filled Spain's television screens with the powerful image of a charismatic leader gathering all pieces of a country jigsawed by ethnic rivalries into his wide arms.
In an interview on Sunday night with SI, the king chose kingly words to describe his pride. "Sportswise, I am pleased with the results of the Spanish athletes, whose efforts and whose enthusiasm are symbolic of their greatness," he said. "The medals they have won only serve to prove that. They make us all proud.
"Spain has demonstrated that we are capable of organizing the Olympic Games with the perfection that you have seen here in Barcelona. Many doubted we could do it. We have never tried anything like this before, and we ourselves could not be sure. But we have shown everyone what we are capable of."