During the European basketball championships last October, Spaniards exiting Madrid metro stations encountered Nike ads featuring Pau Gasol and his Spanish teammates with the caption: "Being Spanish is no longer an excuse, it's a responsibility." Spain played poorly in the final game, losing by a point to Russia. But that was a year ago. Today, as you tally up Gasol's appearance with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals in June, the Spanish soccer team's victory in the European Cup, Rafael Nadal's Wimbledon defeat of Roger Federer, and Carlos Sastre's triumph at the Tour de France, it's pretty obvious Spanish athletes have conquered the sporting world.
The country's economy may be plummeting and its ethnic and linguistic unity cracking, but Spain's athletes head to the Beijing Olympics with newfound pride and self-assurance. "We're seeing a moment in which the country has overcome its longstanding self-perception in sports," says El País sportswriter Juan José Paradinas. "Before, Spaniards didn't see themselves as winners, but as they've won, they've gained confidence. The Spanish athlete now he believes he's a champion."
But what makes a champion and in Spain's case, so many? For some, the country's victory streak is largely coincidence. "In sports, there's always an element of luck," says Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal's coach and uncle. "Rafael could have beaten Federer last year and moved past him, just as he could have lost to Federer this year at Wimbledon. Circumstances and details shape you and in a given competition shape the outcome."
Others see broader forces at work, forces that stem from Spain's relatively late transition to democracy. "Until recently, sports weren't important in Spain," explains sociologist David Moscoso, of the Institute for Advanced Social Studies. "They really only existed in private schools they were for the elite." With democracy, says Moscoso, "sports moved into the public schools, and became something for everyone. Now, it's impossible to consider Spanish society without sports." The transformation has been dramatic. Spain now boasts 250,000 public sporting facilities, its best-selling newspaper, Marca, is a sports paper and 70% of its Olympic medal haul has come in the last four summer games.
Opening sports to the masses not only widened the talent pool but fostered unity in the country's teams. "I've noticed a real difference," says journalist Paradinas. "Before, you'd only read about a few individual, 'name' athletes, and our national teams were made up of these name players, these little islands." This year, the European Cup victory came "despite the players' regional differences because they knew how to integrate themselves."
Broader participation in sports seems to have spun a unique thread of national identity as well. Spanish athletes often use their moment of glory to give a nod to the patria. After winning Wimbledon, Nadal ran to embrace his coach and family, then stepped into the next box to greet Spain's Prince Felipe and Princess Leticia, thanking them by name minutes later while addressing the crowd from center court. Sastre spoke on Spain's national evening news of his pride in bringing glory to his country. Through sports Spaniards seem able to find a sense of national identity that can otherwise elude them, a feeling of what Paradinas calls "being part of Spain's team." On the fields and courts of athletic competition, class and ethnic differences recede as well. "When they're playing sports," says Paradinas, "they feel like Spaniards, part of one country. Whether we're talking about Gasol, Nadal, or Sastre, a national spirit leads them, a spirit lacking before."
But its not just ideals that have helped lift Spain. Investment in sport began to increase when the country hosted the 1982 soccer World Cup and then rose dramatically in the run up to and aftermath of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Sports clubs began to multiply, and the state created dozens of centers where thousands of elite athletes can train at the government's expense. "This has enabled a professionalization of sports unthinkable two decades ago," says Moscoso, "and encouraged Spaniards to see sports positively fathers want their sons to be soccer players."
And as any athlete will tell you, winning begets winning. "When my brother Miguel Ángel, the soccer player, won with Barcelona," says Toni Nadal, "he was suddenly a star from a very small town, Manacor. We had no champions. But since then, Manacor has produced several champions. In sports, when those around you win more, you start to believe in yourself, that you can win too. That's what happened with Rafael he's had success because he has the mental attitude of a winner."
So can Spain ride the momentum through Beijing? Secretary of state for sports Jaime Lissavetzky told a press conference he considers the recent success "a good omen for the Olympics." Certainly Spain will be among the favorites in basketball and tennis. "Rafael will pay a price for so many recent tournaments," says Toni Nadal. "But the Olympics brings the best players, and their high level of play brings out the best in you."
Nike is still marketing Spanish athletes, but its advertisements no longer surprise anyone. Now "they reflect how most Spaniards see themselves," says Moscoso, "as part of the sports elite."