Felipe VI’s Midas Touch

The XVIII Mediterranean Games that opened on 22 June closed yesterday evening in Tarragona – that land of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, nuclear power stations, earthquake-inducing gas platforms and a major port; that land of Roman ruins, the Ebre, renewable energy sources, breathtaking wildlife, some of the world’s best wine, nuts and olive oil. And they close with many questions hanging over their financing, organisation and politicisation.

The Mediterranean Games have been plagued by economic and organisational difficulties since their inception in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1951, and this year’s edition has been no different. What were supposed to be the games of “solidarity and harmony” unsurprisingly turned out to be the games of confusion and disharmony, a terrible shame for the 3,500 volunteers and 4,000 athletes from 26 different countries who the games should have been about.

The problems which have dogged this edition since its announcement six years ago, problems which have carried through into the competition itself over the past ten days, are no fault of theirs. The well-intentioned and hard-working athletes and volunteers have been pawns in a high-level political game; a lot of people at the bottom trying very hard to make the games a success and a lot of people at the top with an agenda whose priority hasn’t been that the games should be a resounding success at every level.

I will not talk about the sport. Not because it was poor – this may yet turn out to have been the most successful Mediterranean Games ever in terms of participating athletes and competition records – but because the sport has been secondary throughout. Unfortunately, the events themselves were marred by a certain amount of organisational chaos and avoidable mishaps too: athletes giving themselves medals, a subsiding basketball court, a wrestling referees strike, and so on.

The Games were won under the slogan “History making history”, later to become “Ready to make history”, which was optimistic, to say the least. It was always going to be an uphill task to make them a sporting, commercial or popular success. Making them about identity – Spanish, Catalan, or Mediterranean for that matter – was only going to throw the crises in the region into relief: Catalonia and Spain; the refugees and Europe.

Their timing hasn’t helped either. The games were inaugurated the night before Saint John’s Eve – one of the biggest celebrations of the Catalan calendar, the symbolic beginning of summer, and closed yesterday on the same day as Spain’s last-16 match against hosts, Russia, in the World Cup. That’s where the King of Spain was, cheering La Roja to defeat. Coincidence with the World Cup has contributed to low levels of interest throughout. The viewing figures have been as disappointing as the numbers attending.

In the end, they have been the ignored and neglected games, the used and abused games, actually quite appropriate if you consider the general political situation in the region since they were announced in 2012, at the beginning of the “Catalan Process”, postponed during that “eventful” 2017, and eventually held in the midst of the ongoing confrontation between the Spanish and Catalan governments.

It isn’t only the local situation that has been critical for some time. The participating countries are all situated on or near to the Mediterranean Sea, where Europe, Africa and Asia meet. While the games stumbled along, so did the negotiations between European countries as to what to do with the African and Asian migrants. “Whatever they want” was the conclusion of last week’s European summit; perhaps the building of internment camps in Africa to perform a kind of refugee triage.

Countries on the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas have always been the migratory front line, the first ports of call, though it should be mentioned that not all of them are as resistant to the refugees as the newly formed anti-migrant central-eastern European bloc. The organisation’s web page declared as much before the Games started; they were also the Games of “social commitment”: “The Foundation Tarragona 2017 and Red Cross have agreed in working together to promote the values of sport and solidarity, focusing in forced migrations through different awareness actions related to the Mediterranean Games.”

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Keeping those of a pro-independence mindset, of any occupation, well away from the organisation of the games, but at the same time making the pro-independence Catalan government its main contributor should go down as quite a coup for the organisers. Nevertheless, in the end, they needed all the help they could get, even if it was absolutely no help at all.

The Spanish garrison was beefed up by Spain’s Ministry of Defence last October with two M-31 minesweepers moored in the port, followed a few months later by 650 troops and a host of military vehicles involved in manoeuvres, a concert by a Spanish Army band in a Tarragona theatre, the Spanish Parachute Regiment in the opening ceremony (as requested by Ballesteros’ Tarragona council) and finally the amphibious assault ship, Juan Carlos I (L-61), also requested by Ballesteros. Critics of the games can be excused for talking about a “militarisation” of the sporting event. Perhaps Ballesteros was expecting trouble from the more seditious sectors of Catalan society. There was none; they stayed away, as was hoped.

On the day of the inauguration, King Felipe VI and Catalan president Quim Torra were both welcomed to the city by small protests. President Torra wisely decided not to boycott the event amid speculation in the international press that the Catalan government had severed ties with the monarchy. The story was originally published – isn’t it always – by Associated Press in Madrid and seemed to stem more from an irresistible pun than any real news. “Los independentistas catalanes cortan los lazos formales con la monarquía española” (“Catalan secessionists cut formal ties with Spanish monarchy“: the article is curiously only still available from its publisher in English. Ties were severed – if any remained – in the sense that the King would not be invited to any events organised by the Generalitat. How could he be invited after his partisan role in his country’s affairs over the past year?

The noisy rejection of the King’s presence by a good part of the massive demonstration in solidarity with the victims of the terror attacks and the Mossos d’Esquadra, the regional police force, was the reception the organisers wanted to avoid, especially considering his belligerant address to Catalans on 3 October. They managed it, but at the expense of a half-empty stadium. Before the ceremony, president Torra had presented the king with Jordi Borràs’s Days that Will Last for YearsDies que duraran anys, a photographic account of 1 October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that will always be remembered more for the extreme violence of the Spanish police charged with breaking it up than its result. The book is unlikely to take pride of place on a regal coffee table despite its personal dedication.

The royal box in Gimnàstic de Tarragona’s New Stadium (Nou Estadi ) featured: King Felipe VI of Spain; Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez; President of Catalonia, Quim Torra; President of the International Committee of the Mediterranean Games, Amar Addadi; President of the Organising Committee of the XVIII edition and Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC) mayor of Tarragona, Josep Fèlix Ballesteros; Spanish government ministers, Meritxell Batet, Minister of Regional Policy and Public Affairs, and José Luís Ábalos, Minister of Public Works and Transport; and Catalan government ministers, Elsa Artadi, Catalan government spokesperson, and Ernest Maragall, Minister of Foreign Action.

“This city is today the capital of the Mediterranean, our great fatherland. Tarragona is a paradigm of the wide range of the Mediterranean world because every wave of the sea has forged our plural, respectful, supportive identity. I am convinced that these must be the games of peace and dialogue, the games for history,” said Ballesteros. Ballesteros has come in for more criticism than most for their politicisation.

The President of the International Committee of the Mediterranean Games, Amar Addadi, however, characterised the Mediterranean, not so much as a fatherland, but more as a graveyard. “We share a Mediterranean that unites us. The games help us to find our common roots and they nourish a message of hope despite the dramas that shake the region and that have turned the Mediterranean into a great cemetery,” he said about the refugee crisis. Alongside him stood Sánchez, Spain’s new prime minister, the man that had symbolically opened the door to the refugees, and Ábalos, the minister who closed it again, as Europe’s leaders play a game of pass the buck with human lives.

Torra’s offers of help are genuine, as are those of Barcelona mayor, Ada Colau, coming as they do from Catalonia, the region of Europe to have shown most genuine solidarity with the situation of the refugees. Early last year, Barcelona was home to the largest demonstration in support of the refugees seen in Europe. Half a million people took to the streets that day.

The King and president Torra presided over an opening ceremony either side of Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. Both the king and president Torra were booed by small sectors of the small crowd in a half-empty stadium. It was an inauspicious beginning to the games. The organisers’ desire to ensure a display of monarchic feeling by cherry-picking the crowd had ended up limiting attendance. They had cut off their noses to spite their faces and spare the King’s blushes. An embarrassing spectacle was preferable to the monarch’s embarrassment. Either that or there was simply no interest.

For the games of “change”, there was the gift of fate – a new king, a new president, a new prime minister. The opening ceremony could have reflected a changing of the guard. For the games of “diversity”, mention could also have been made of Celto-Iberians, Phoenicians, Vandals, Visigoths, Moors, and all but the Hispanic of the subsequent waves of migration that Catalonia has enjoyed. Despite the message of glorious miscegenation, it’s a mixed message in the mouths of some. What could be more of a historic mix than modern Catalonia, yet only the Roman and Spanish contributions seemed to matter.

The ceremony, entitled “Dreams of Stone and Water”, was created and directed by Hansel Cereza, co-founder of La Fura dels Baus, and performed almost exclusively by the 3,500 tireless volunteers and some of the 4,000 competitors of the Games. La Fura dels Baus were responsible for the opening ceremony Mediterrani, mar olímpic (Mediterranean, Olympic Sea) at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, generally considered one of the greatest games inauguration shows ever seen. The music was composed by pianist Sergio de la Puente.

The unavoidably safe Roman theme was designed to offend no one. The volunteers filled the impluvium, the square basin centrepiece, which became a censer, an incense burner that would illuminate the stadium until the end of the Games. The Games mascot, Tarracus, a Roman helmet on wheels, trundled around the arena with other galea. The desire to be neutral resulted in its being anodyne. The visible lack of budget and the half-empty stadium didn’t help with the atmosphere either. Whatever happened to the €64,000,000?

The musical accompaniment, on the other hand, was studiously more Latin pop made in Catalonia from artists of Spanish or Latin origin also popular in Spain – there’s that fake plurality again. Antonio Orozco seduced the sparse audience  with Mi héroe (My Hero) and Hoy será (It Will Be Today). There was also Lucrecia with Tarracus, Mari Ángeles López with Mediterráneo and the children’s choir PeTaCa (Petit Taller de Cançons) singing the games’ anthem, Juguem per viure (We Play to Live).

A touch of drama was provided by Spanish Air Force – Patrulla Acrobática de Paracaidistas del Ejército del Aire (PAPEA) – the Acrobatic Parachute Patrol of the Air Force – parachuting in the flag of the International Committee of the Mediterranean Games under a much larger Spanish flag-cum-parachute. And, of course, there was the section of the crowd with passes from unionist organisations who spoilt the show at every opportunity with their own brand of “harmless patriotism”. The games were therefore assisted by land in the shape of the unnecessarily heavy police presence, Spain’s real Army, especially obvious for the King’s visit, by the Navy in the days leading up to the games and and by air.

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Alarm bells had sounded early regarding attendance, with complaints about ticket allocations and stories on social media of freebies for unionists. Artadi and Maragall rebuked the organisers for screening out Catalanist symbols, loading the sparse crowd with Spanish nationalists and even holding back tickets from the Generalitat, the Games main sponsor. Ernest Maragall of Esquerra Repúblicana de Catalunya (ERC) summed up how non-unionist Catalans were feeling at the spectacle.

In Tarragona show of force from all security forces
In the stadium, a screened and heavily-policed crowd
On the pitch, dull speeches
In the royal box, the smell of moth balls

Conclusion: Spain has a Head of State
Catalonia has no king

Ernest Maragall

The Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC) mayor of Tarragona, Josep Fèlix Ballesteros, denied there had been any intererence in ticket allocations, pointing to the fact that they had been available on Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster, however, were not responsible for the distribution of complementary tickets.

The accusations of interference in the distribution of tickets, especially those of a complementary nature were confirmed in an exchange on Twitter with the Aragonese Cultural Centre of Tarragona (CCAT). The organisation admitted that it regularly let a room at its headquarters to Spanish unionist platform, Societat Civil Catalana (SCC). They confirmed that it had come to their attention that SCC had used its meetings to deliver the tickets, along with a pep talk and a Spanish flag. The cultural organisation denied any prior knowledge of SCC’s activities, being under the illusion that SCC is “an apolitical institution” and that they were officially responsible for tickets to the Games.

According to Porta Enrere, Spanish ultranationalist political party, VOX, had acquired an unspecified number of tickets a month before the ceremony, which were then redistributed via Spanish nationalist and far-right entities such as the SCC, Plataforma per Tabàrnia (Platform for Tabarnia) or Catalunya por España (Catalonia for Spain). VOX’s Deputy Communications Secretary in Tarragona, Jordi Ferré, explained that they had reserved tickets as a political party and bussed people in to the opening ceremony from Barcelona and other parts of the Spanish State.

On a side note, VOX’s position on the migrant crisis is clear, as is that of the Spanish right. They don’t want them. Full stop. The most important solidarity to put on show at the games was obviously with the King and the fatherland, whatever the organisers’ web page might have said. There’s nothing wrong with cultural celebration or even a bit of positive patriotism. When, however, it is a repressive nationalism denying the existence of regional identity it’s an altogether more worrying scenario. And everybody knows what happens when you get help from SCC – the fascists, and the embarrassment that accompanies them, are never far away.

Who’s to blame for all of this? Who turned the games into a poorly attended political and identitary conflict. Sadly, public enquiries never prosper in Spain, engines of change that they are. In case you’re interested, here’s a list: Qui hi ha darrere dels polèmics Jocs Mediterranis de Tarragona? (Who’s behind the controversial Mediterranean Games?). What was supposed to be a celebration of Tarragona and its place in the Mediterranean has ended up being an embarrassing display of the organisers’ incompetence and inability to mobilise large numbers of people, the mirror-image of unionism’s lack of a real social base.

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Everyone was on tenterhooks to see what the closing ceremony would offer. Something else about the Romans? Another Legoland history of Hispania? Another attempt at cultural engineering? Another stage-managed celebration of the monarchy and the fatherland? Could it be any more disastrous than the badly stage-managed opening ceremony?

In the end, it was an equally poorly attended rehash of the opening ceremony, with a few nods to the fact that the event was actually taking place in Catalonia: there was the sound of the gralla, a Catalan double-reed wind instrument, and a bit of choreographed Santi Arisa. The King was too far away in Russia to object, after all. Then Tarracus, the volunteers and athletes wandered around to the the most inclusive of EDM, more uniforms folded away the competition’s standard, the speeches were as lacklustre as first time round, there was some more EDM, but this time with dancing. It was good to hear Etta James again (RIP) reincarnated by Avicii (RIP). Then, incomprehensibly, international recording artist, Álvaro Soler, performed his mega-hits to the three-quarters empty stadium and it was all rounded off with the most Mediterranean of firework displays as the stadium finally emptied completely. Surreal.

Official attendance figures for the games are not yet available – they probably need a massage before going public – but it’s clear from television coverage that they are very disappointing. It was a fitting end to the XVIII Mediterranean Games, but very sad for the volunteers and athletes who had actually made it happen. The refugee crisis was also forgotten, but for the ’60s classic Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In finding its way into a medley. Another cursory nod.

Fittingly for Tarragona and its Roman heritage, the games were won by Italy and not Spain.
On the other hand, under the eyes of the King, Spain, the footballing superpower, lost to hosts Russia in their World Cup last-16 match. Recently, it seems as if everything the King touches falls to pieces.

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