Forget Madrid for a while: the Spanish Olympic Committee’s obsession is with the Winter Games in Barcelona, Zaragoza and the Pyrenees. And maybe beyond

In an interview with Around the Rings, Alejandro Blanco explained how he is pushing for the 2030 bid amid Spain’s very complex political landscape, with part of the Catalans demanding independence. And he is open to a heterodox Games.

Alejandro Blanco, President of the Spanish Olympic Committee / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Alejandro Blanco, President of the Spanish Olympic Committee / SEBASTIÁN FEST

MADRID - Alejandro Blanco doesn’t say it in plain Spanish, but throughout the lengthy interview with Around the Rings in Madrid it’s very clear: if the regional government of Catalonia again flirts in public with the idea of Barcelona hosting an Olympic Games in 2030 in a nation independent of Spain, the project will be over before it begins.

This gives an idea of the difficult mission on which the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee (COE) is embarked: to bring the Winter Games to the Pyrenees for the first time and to get the Catalan regional government to reach an understanding with its counterpart in Aragon and, as a whole, with the Spanish government and the COE.

This is what the local newspaper “El Mundo” recently called a “State Operation”, although Blanco prefers to go the other way.

“This joint project has to be a sporting one.... Society sees this project as one of respect, understanding and dialogue. That is important”, explained the veteran leader in his Madrid offices, who is overflowing with happiness at the election of Pau Gasol as a member of the IOC: “Maximum value as a sportsman and as a person”.

- Are there currently two Spanish bids to host the Games?

We have already sent the letter to the IOC to apply for the Winter Olympics. Then there is the summer Games, Madrid has lost three times its bid to host the Games. I believe that Madrid, as of Agenda 2020, but even before, is the best prepared city in the world to host the Games. And because of the sporting and organisational level, but above all because of the popular acceptance in Spain, Madrid cannot forget the Olympic dream. But no date has been set. We are going to turn the city into a centre for the organisation of sporting events. We are not going to forget the Olympic dream, but we are not going to set dates.

- Is it certain that the 2030 Winter Games host will be decided in 2023?

- If the IOC’s seven-year rule is followed, it would be in 2023, but we are waiting for the IOC’s decision.

- The thing is that Brisbane 2032 was decided 11 years earlier, are you clear with the IOC about when the venue will be decided?

- What we have discussed with the IOC is that the logical time is the end of 22, beginning of 23. The important thing is that we prepare a good bid, the Pyrenees have never had an Olympic Games. I think it is a bid with great significance, for political reasons, because of what is happening in Spain. The fact that we are able to present a joint bid with Catalonia, Aragon and Spain is very important. I believe that the strength of sport will overcome this situation. Just preparing the project is great news for Spain.

- This has been defined as a state operation...

- I am the oldest in this candidacy, I started in 2010. I am the one who has been in the race from the beginning, and this has always been approached as a sporting matter. From there, if with this work we have managed to bring together the government of Spain with the government of Catalonia and the government of Aragon... If we unite them in this joint project in which we agree that the focus has to be on sport... Society sees this project as one of respect, understanding and dialogue. That is important.

- There is an important disagreement about the name. Barcelona wants it to be Barcelona-Pyrenees, but the government of Aragon, opposed to the independence of Catalonia that the Catalan government advocates, wants Aragon to be part of the name on the same level as Barcelona...

- We are in the technical work and we will resolve that soon. It must be a name in which we all feel comfortable and no one dominates over anyone else.

- At the same time, many in the Olympic world say that it would be a shame to waste the power of the name Barcelona

- I don’t think it should be wasted.

- But Barcelona and Aragon are not comparable. One is a city and the other a region

- Barcelona is a city, Zaragoza is another city. I don’t see why it can’t be Barcelona-Zaragoza.

- Zaragoza would be a venue?

- Barcelona would be a venue. So would Zaragoza. We see no difficulty there. They are two cities without snow, but there will be ice in both of them. We are doing a high level technical work. And the two Pyrenees, the Catalan and the Aragonese, would be the mountain venues.

- Barcelona-Zaragoza 2030 is therefore an alternative for the name of the bid

- We shall see.

Alejandro Blanco and Around the Rings Editor-In-Chief, Sebastián Fest, after the interview / COE
Alejandro Blanco and Around the Rings Editor-In-Chief, Sebastián Fest, after the interview / COE

Blanco, 71, comes from judo, a sport in which the aim is to defeat the opponent by taking advantage of the opponent’s strength. This knowledge comes in handy in the midst of the difficult mission he is embarking on, although he has something in his favour: the Catalan government’s desire for independence is not what it used to be.

In 2017, the Catalan parliament issued a declaration of independence with no real effect, but which was a political bombshell in Spain. Today, relatively seduced by the offer of dialogue and understanding from the Spanish government, led by the social democrat Pedro Sánchez, the Catalan government has moderated in its public statements, because it does not want to get into a dead end again.

Thus, re-declaring independence does not seem a realistic or impending option, although from time to time the issue comes back to the fore and complicates the highly complex political machinery of the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy. And the plans of Blanco and Spanish Olympism.

- The head of the Catalan regional government himself, Pere Aragones, said a few weeks ago that he hopes the 2030 Games will be the first Games of an independent Catalonia. What do you think of that statement?

- That is something for the person who made the statements to answer, but it goes against what we think of the candidature, which has to distance itself from political issues. If we don’t do that, the candidacy has no chance. Apart from the technical aspects, the strength of the candidature is that sport makes us all understand each other in Spain. Its most important legacy, which is before, during and after the Games, is that, the understanding between Spaniards. Statements of this kind have no place.

- Are you worried about the possibility that there might not be enough snow in the Pyrenees during the Games?

- Part of the Pyrenees is already preparing for the possibility that there might not be enough snow. Within the technical study the most important part is what is going to happen in terms of climate in 10 or 20 years in the Pyrenees. That is the first question. We will have snow, either because climate change has not arrived, or because of the additional facilities we have.

- Were you envious of the way Brisbane won the 2032 Games?

- No, it’s a decision taken by the IOC.

- But if you look at what Madrid and other cities have gone through in previous years, it was comparatively smooth.

- That system generated a lot of controversy. I think this is one of the many great successes that Thomas Bach has had in changing the system. There were real surprises that didn’t benefit the Olympic movement at all. Now you have much less investment and expenditure and it is much more transparent. And it avoids the great tensions that were present in the elections.

- Let me get this straight: Spain has a clear bid for the Winter Games and no bid for the Summer Games. Am I right?

- Madrid will not forget the dream of a summer bid and in the meantime it will once again be the centre of international sporting events. And let’s not forget that Spain is currently fighting for the football World Cup. We have the best facilities in the world.

- In terms of candidatures, you have the advantage that by the time you have to decide whether Madrid will bid for 2036, you will already know whether Barcelona won or not...

- I think they are two totally independent paths. Now we have a project, which is Barcelona, and an idea for the future, which is Madrid.

- Is the bid for the Winter Games for 2030 or also for 2034?

- The Pyrenees is a reliable, feasible and achievable issue. We are going to prepare the candidature, we are going to present it, we are going to see how many candidates there are, we are going to see how the IOC makes the decision, and from there, together with the IOC, we are going to plan the future.

- In Barcelona there were voices that raised the option of a referendum to decide whether to present the candidature.

- The referendum comes from a party that is part of the government of Catalonia. Let’s see what happens.

- The IOC is against referendums, because they end up damaging the image of the Games. Does it make sense?

- Obviously, that’s why I say we’ll see what happens.

Metal figures evoking Olympic sports, on the esplanade of the Spanish Olympic Committee / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Metal figures evoking Olympic sports, on the esplanade of the Spanish Olympic Committee / SEBASTIÁN FEST

- I take you away from the Spanish candidatures for a moment and ask you about Gianni Infantino’s plan for the World Cup to be played every two years.

- If FIFA has proposed it, it will be because it believes it can be done. Sport is changing, that is a reality.

- Isn’t it a change that affects the Olympic Games?

- I don’t think so. The Olympic Games are so strong that if there is a World Cup in another sport, it doesn’t matter. And the logical thing would be that, if they do it every two years, FIFA would not make the World Cup coincide with the Olympic Games. I think Gianni Infantino will have studied this very carefully. And if FIFA does it, that’s it, we have to respect them, not question any decision.

- But Infantino is a member of the IOC, wouldn’t a link be desirable?

- I know and appreciate Infantino, I don’t think he will do anything against the Olympic movement.

- What is your assessment of the Tokyo Games, the ones that Madrid wanted to host?

- It has been a very strong bet. The ideal would be to hold the Games with spectators, as has always been the case, but we have to live in the times we live in. What Japan has done is 10 out of 10. They have done a real heroic deed in organising the Games.

- And what are your expectations for Beijing 2022?

- Nothing is the same as before, the whole world of sport has come to terms with that. I’m sure Beijing will organise a great Games.

- You say that sport is changing, what is changing?

- People are doing more and more sport, they are looking for new experiences. And there are more and more private companies involved in the organisation of events, and I think that’s a good thing. Everything has evolved positively.

- Have you thought about sharing the Games with Andorra?

- We are working on the technical side and we will see what the best solution is. When you look at what Paris has done with the summer Games, with the surfing event, you see that anything is possible. We have to try to make the best bid.

- So I understand that you are open to heterodox variants, to adding one or more neighbouring countries.

- I can’t answer you, because the priority is to make it the best bid we can offer. We are going to conclude the study we are carrying out and present the best candidacy.