Spain aims high as Beijing looms

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Sports authorities are optimistic about Olympic medal prospects.

4 January 2008

MADRID - It wasn't until day 11 of the Athens 2004 Olympics that Spain won its first gold medal, and there were fears of a slimmer haul than at Sydney four years earlier - when the country's athletes won just 11 medals overall. In the end, they took home three golds, along with 11 silver and five bronze medals: a long way from the 13 golds and 22 medals overall of the 1992 Barcelona Games.

But things have improved drastically over the last two years, which have been the best in the history of Spanish sport, with the country's athletes garnering 38 medals in world and European championships. In 2007 alone, Spaniards won seven gold medals, seven silver, and six bronze, obtaining places in almost 60 finals.

And according to Luciano Barra of the Italian Olympic Committee, Spain's prospects for Beijing are bright. Barra, who knows Spanish sport well, and has consistently predicted medal winners over the last two decades, says Spain will win seven gold medals this August.

Among the athletes Barra foresees atop the podium in the Chinese capital this summer are cyclist Juan Llaneras, kayaking champion David Cal, sailing winners Deferr, and Paquillo Fernández, triathlon medalist Gómez Noya, the synchronized swimming team led by Gemma Mengual, long-distance runner Mayte Martínez, and walker María Vasco. He is also positive about Spain's prospects in basketball and hockey.

Secretary of State for Sports Jaime Lissavetsky shares Barra's optimism, and recently predicted Spain would win between "21 and 23" medals in China. Lissavetsky added: "According to the experts, we have a chance of winning medals in around 15 sports, which has never happened before."

Spain's Olympic Committee says it is generally satisfied with the country's progress over the last 25 years, and that Spain's ranking among the world's major sporting powers corresponds to its economic and political weight. At the same time, they acknowledge that Spain lacks both the tradition and resources to compete with the United States, Russia, Germany, or even France and the United Kingdom.

"Spain was unlucky when it came to winning gold in Athens, but overall it did well," says Barra, who was hired as a consultant on the country's unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 games. "Spain is strongest in team sports, which are expensive and win few medals," he says, pointing to the country's failure to create a system capable of consistently producing winners in individual disciplines such as athletics, swimming, and gymnastics.

That said, expenditure on sports has increased significantly since 1992. This time round, some EUR 63.1 million will have been spent - up 53 percent on Athens - on preparing the maximum of 340 athletes Spain will be sending to China.

Manuel Fonseca of the Spanish sports council (CSD) says that the morale of the country's athletes has been boosted by awareness with the sporting community of the state's support. "The government has worked closely with the private sector to get financing for athletes," he said.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Blanco, president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, has been careful in his comments to the media to avoid overstating the importance of medals, instead stressing the number of Spanish athletes who will be travelling to China.

[Copyright El Pais/ AMAYA IRÍBAR 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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