Sports success the Spanish way

July 2010 will forever be cast in gold in Spain’s (sporting) history. During that summer month alone, Spanish sports ambassadors recorded team and individual triumphs in five major sports events. From the grassy surface of the All England Tennis Club to the bowels of the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, it was viva Espana all the way.

An often polarized nation was thrown into wide celebrations when the national football team won the 2010 FIFA World Cup on July 11. That glorious outing was sandwiched between a few other notable feats by Spaniards in a month of sporting dominance which the media in Spain tagged a “golden age”. Two weeks earlier, then-world Number One tennis player, Rafael Nadal had won the Wimbledon Open tennis tournament for the second time in three years, his eighth career grand slam title at the time. Two weeks after Spain claimed the World Cup, cyclist Alberto Contador won the Tour de France tournament – his second successive triumph and third in four years. That same weekend, Fernando Alonso won the German leg of world premier car racing tournament, the Formula One Grand Prix, while in the United States of America his compatriot, Jorge Lorenzo also claimed victory in motorbike racing’s biggest event, the Moto GP.

Spanish sporting success in July 2010 amply reflects the country’s overall stature in world sports at the moment and it is perhaps the most convincing argument yet why Spain is so far, arguably the most dominant sports power of the 21st century. And the numbers to support such claims are impressive indeed. In a July 2010, article, online site philstar.com noted: “Since 2000, Spain has won basketball’s world and European championships and four Davis Cup tennis titles; Rafael Nadal has captured eight Grand Slam (tennis) victories; three Spanish riders have triumphed at the Tour de France; Fernando Alonso has secured two Formula One titles, and Pau Casol has helped the Los Angeles Lakers win back-to-back NBA (basketball) titles.” What that summary did not mention is that Spanish teams had, at the time also won European club football’s foremost competitions (the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup, now Europa League) a combined total of eight times (England, the next most successful now has three, following Chelsea FC’s triumph in the Champions League in May, while Italy is third with three overall titles) since 2000. Neither did the summary state that Nadal is the reigning Olympic Men’s Tennis Singles champion.

Two years on from 2010, Spain’s senior national football team has added the 2012 European Championship to its collection. A further Davis Cup was secured in 2011 at the expense of Argentina. Nadal has also added two more French Open titles (2011 and 2012) to his 2010 US Open title, bringing his grand slam total to 11. Just on Sunday, July 15, this year, the Spanish Under-19 national football team collected the European Under-19 trophy to add to the world title the Under-21s won in 2011. Barcelona (2011 Champions League) and Athletico Madrid (2012, Europa League) have brought Spanish total haul of UEFA football diadem to 10. And there are a few more.

So, what has Spain done to enhance its sporting fortunes? Could the country’s current sports boom be mere coincidence? Far from being a mere coincidence, Spain’s renaissance as a sporting power is due in great part, to radical measures the country introduced in the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Games which were held in Barcelona. Prior to the games, the Spanish authorities introduced a public-private initiative known as the Plan to Aid Olympic Sport, otherwise called ADO Plan locally, which was aimed at increasing funding for sports. Online sports forum, online.wsj.com, in a May 2009 article stressed that the initiative led to a dramatic increase in the number and quality of training facilities in Spain.

The ADO Plan initiative gave birth to sports-friendly economic policies which created the leverage for many sports to grow. One good example of this is the tax regime that has made the Spanish football league more attractive to footballers than most other leagues because it allows players to earn more money and pay less tax than tax laws in countries like England allow sportsmen. But the initiative also coincided with the emergence of a more prosperous Spain in a construction-driven national economic boom starting from the mid-1990s, which further fanned the embers of sporting success.

In the wake of Contador’s victory in France in 2010, Spain’s largest circulating sports newspaper Marca attributed the country’s current impressive string of success to hard work, training of young athletes as well as efforts of personalities like the late Spanish former International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. And just like Barcelona FC especially continues to prove, many sports have bought into this model – developing young talents, “with better nutrition,” as one Spanish daily puts it – with sterling success.

Consequently, even in the current murky world economic climate, confidence is sky-high among Spaniards that the sporting structures in the country are too solid for the ongoing string of success to be truncated anytime soon. In an interview with Spanish newspaper, el Pais, Fabio Duran of Cogesdeporte, a sports consultancy outfit in Seville, Spain, sums up the national optimism thus: “Sport is no less susceptible to the recession than other sectors, but we have strong structures and financing systems and support to be able to weather it.”

However, it should also be pointed out that despite the current run of success, Spain is not in absolute dominance as its average performances at the European athletics championships which held in Barcelona in 2010 as well as its continued flatter to deceive posture especially in many athletics meets across the globe have all shown. Nonetheless, in the Iberian nation’s policies and methods that have led to the current wave of sporting success, there are pointers to be noted – sport is big business and in sports, long-term planning and youth development as much as talent and infrastructure often yield rich rewards.

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