"The most important thing about the Olympic Games is not to win, but to participate"
Pierre de Coubertin
Thanks to the 25th Olympic Games Barcelona became the focus of millions of people from around the world. It seemed as if Barcelona had been rediscovered. Everyone was talking about it. The newspapers and television showed pictures that seemed to come from the land of marvels. Pictures of the whole city, of its characteristic monuments, its Gothic cathedral, the Olympic village, the newly completed Palace of Saint Jordi, of the many sports grounds and racing tracks and the Olympic stadium of Montjuic. Oh, the stadium of Montjuic! For people of my generation that building is full of memories and a certain sense of nostalgia. My mind revisit the stadium as it was 56 years ago (1936). Groups of enthusiastic and illusion filled youths would journey to it everyday to train for the chance to qualify for the youth contests of the Olympic games of Barcelona. Yes, I say it well, the Olympic Games of Barcelona, which had to happen in 1936, though in the present time you don't hear many mentions of this significant event.
But before we continue on the history of that Olympics, sadly frustrated by tragic circumstances, let us turn the page of the book of time and briefly look at the history of the modern Olympic Games. The initiator of the games was the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, a sincere humanist who believed that the participation of people from the whole world in sporting competitions would carry the spirit of friendship, brotherhood, and mutual understanding between the athletes, from whatever ethnic origin, faith or social position they are. We must keep in mind that sadly these idealistic goals of Pierre de Coubertin were often only partly realised and that the Games were often compromised from terrible political manipulations, racism, furious nationalism, intolerance, unchecked corruption, and the desire to win at any cost and the use of methods not completely ethical. Contrasts with the desires of de Coubertin when he declared "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to participate; the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the efforts used to obtain it".
The ideal which Pierre de Coubertin proposed to the participants is not identified with the victory alone, but with the chivalrous spirit of the sport, its generous practice, the kind acceptance of fate, whether favourable or unfavourable, the friendly co-operation between nations, ethnic groups and individuals in general, precious moral elements that the public can also appreciate.
The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896, and since than excepting the years of the two world wars it happens every four years in a different city. Since the beginning of the Olympic movement Barcelonans have shown great interest in the Olympic Games. In 1929 construction began on the stadium of Montjuic with the intention of developing the necessary infrastructure to host them. Consequently Barcelona presented it self as a candidate to host the 11th Olympics to be held in 1936.
The International Olympic Committee met in Barcelona in 1931, but could not reach a consensus. In 1932 a year later they reconvened in Los Angeles and chose Berlin by ballot. That city received 43 votes to 16 for Barcelona and 8 abstentions. In that time Germany was governed by a centrist regime and had given an impression that it could organise the Games while guaranteeing a freedom from partisanship. However, in January 1933 Adolph Hitler captured state power and immediately began drafting racist laws. Political neutrality was already made impossible despite the promises made by Hitler to Baillet-Letour the president of the International Olympic Committee.
On the 5th of September 1935, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jewish people of their German citizenship, at the same time he intensified cruel persecutions against his political opponents. These circumstances created an atmosphere of general fear. Many athletes refused to be made instruments of the Nazi propaganda machine. In many countries committees were created with the aim of finding an alternatives to the games in Berlin. The logical place for this was Barcelona, which as we've seen above had already prepared its candidacy to host the Olympic Games several years before. Consequently the Committee for the Popular Olympiad of Barcelona was created, Josep Antoni Trabal was its President; its secretary was Jaume Miravitlles a councillor for the Autonomous Catalan Government (Generalitat de Catalunya). The date from the 19th until the 26th of July. Soon athletes wishing to participate arrived from France, the United States, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Sweden, Morocco and many other countries. For obvious reasons, no registrations came from Germany, but in return many Germans who lived abroad and for whom participation in the Berlin Games were of course barred did arrive to register.
Saturday afternoon, the 18th of July the stadium of Montjuic is already boiling with activity. Many foreign athletes are found here training and getting to know other participants of the Games. Also there are many young Barcelonans, members of the sports department of the People's Encyclopaedic Athenaeum of the Barcelona workers school and from other local clubs. These young people had to practice gymnastic exercises in order to be presentable tomorrow. The contacts between both groups was extremely enlightening and full of teaching despite the evident language barriers. Not many of foreigners could speak Spanish. Some whispered words just learnt and terribly pronounced, which caused amusing misunderstandings. For myself I was able to make use of my limited knowledge of the French language but often unsuccessfully. Most often kind gestures and warm handshakes replaced words.
The atmosphere was very brotherly. For the first time I was able to talk directly to people from other countries. That experience strengthened my convictions about true friendship between people from the most diverse places. Enthusiasm and euphoria hovered above the stadium, but unfortunately mixed with a feeling of anticipation and stress. During the whole day we heard constant alarming news of an army rebellion. The government claimed that everything was under control, but few were convinced of this assertion. When the youths arrived to prepare for the gymnastic exercises one of the organisers mournfully announced "Fascist hands had sabotaged the electric works, but they would soon fix the damage and tomorrow would inaugurate the Games".
Parallel to the sporting contests a Cultural Olympics was being organised with many folk events and presentations. Amongst the participants of this Cultural Olympics was the world famous Cellist Pau Casals.
On the evening of July 18, Pau Casals conducted the rehearsal of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra, in collaboration with the singers of the famous Barcelona Choral Society (Orfeó Gracienc), was to play the next day at the Greek Theatre of Montjuic on the occasion of the inauguration of the Olympic Games. During the rehearsal, an official appeared in an excited voice and said, “Stop the rehearsal. We have been informed that there will be a military uprising across the country tonight. The concert and the Olympics are cancelled. Leave the place at once. ”
This announcement caused Casals great consternation. He turned to the musicians and singers and said "I do not know when we will meet again, so I propose to you that before we depart that we finished the rehearsal and continue to play the symphony together". and raising the baton continued the rehearsal culminating in the final part which reads as follows:
Here is a hug to thousands,
here’s a kiss to the whole world!
Brothers! above the starry canopy ’’
"What an emotional moment, what a contrast" recalls the maestro some years later "We sang the sublime hymn of brotherhood, while on the streets of Barcelona, and of many other cities, a struggle was being prepared which should shed so much blood. ”
The choir also rehearsed the anthem of the People's Olympics composed by the poet Josep María de Sagarra. This hymn was to be sung in front of thousands on the 19th of July.
Under the blue sky
The sole impactful word
Cried joyously, Peace!
But instead of hearing the hymn of peace, on that day Barcelonans heard the sound of ceaseless gunfire, and at five thirty in the morning a heart-breaking call from the Barcelona radio station "Barcelonans! the terrible moment has come to pass; the army, treacherous in spite of its honourable words has rebelled against the Republic. For the people of Barcelona now is the hour of great decisions and great sacrifices: destroy the rebel army! Every citizen must be prepared to fulfil their duty. Long live the Republic!"
Many of the athletes who had travelled to Barcelona to take part in the Olympic Games remained, and actively took part in the struggle against fascism: Some of them would never set foot in a stadium again. And so ended before it began was the fate of the People's Olympiad of Barcelona that had been so full of hope. Prepared for with much enthusiasm and love, by people with good wishes who truly believed in the humanist Olympian ideal.