Barcelona was the Spanish hometown of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the President of the International Olympic Committee. He had been elected President of the IOC only days before the tragic Munich Games of 1972; in the 20 years since he had seen television and sponsor budgets balloon and the Games reach a once unimagined global TV audience. It was the first Games in a while not blemished by boycotts, leading to a record 172 nations participating.
From the spectacular Opening Ceremony, highlighted when the Olympic flame was lit by a flaming arrow fired by a Spanish archer, Antonio Rebollo, Barcelona was a visually spectacular Games. Images such as China’s tiny teenage diving sensation, Fu Mingxia, launching herself from the 10m platform with the city skyline as a backdrop, made for a visual feast. Fu, just 13, led a strong Chinese diving team that won three of four possible gold medals.
This was a Games that reflected the changing face of world politics, especially in Europe. The Communist Bloc had crumbled; the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall had been destroyed. The new independent republics of the former Soviet Union joined forces to compete as the Unified Team, also known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). For the first time since 1964, a single German team competed (East and West Germany had previously competed separately). South Africa also returned to the Games for the first time since 1960.
Australia at these Games
The Barcelona Olympics in many ways welcomed a new era in Australia’s Olympic history. It invigorated support back at home as popular heroes such as 1500m freestyle idol Kieren Perkins and rowing’s ‘Oarsome Foursome’ captured the public’s imagination – and would return as heroes at future Games.
Australia sent a team of 290 athletes to the Games, 194 men and 96 women. Like in 1988, it set a new record for participation. Diver Jenny Donnett, competing at her fourth Games, was the flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony. Her mother, Barbara MacAuley, had represented Australia in diving at the Melbourne Olympics. Perkins carried the flag at the Closing Ceremony.
Australia won 27 medals in Barcelona: seven gold, nine silver and 11 bronze. Excluding the boycott-affected 1984 Games, it was Australia’s best result since the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. As such, it was the best medal haul ever for a team competing outside of Australia.
The seven gold medals were won across five sports: aquatics (swimming), canoe/kayak, cycling, equestrian and rowing. Minor medals were won in four other sports: athletics, hockey, sailing and tennis. It was an outstanding result, demonstrating the growing depth across Olympic sports within Australia.
The most celebrated medal was Kieren Perkins’s 1500m freestyle win, in a world record time of 14 minutes, 43.48 seconds, regarded by many as the best individual performance of the Games. There was also historic gold medals for cyclist Kathy Watt in the women’s road race and for kayaker Clint Robinson in the K1 1000m. Watt, who also won a silver medal on the track, was Australia’s first women’s cycling champion; Robinson the nation’s first canoe/kayak gold medallist.
The only dual gold medallist was equestrian’s Matthew Ryan. He won gold in both the individual and team three-day event, joining Andrew Hoy and Gillian Rolton on the team podium (David Green was also on the team, but his mount Duncan II did not finish the event and so Green did not receive a medal). Ryan, riding Kibah Tic Toc, matched Laurie Morgan’s 1960 feat of winning both eventing gold medals for Australia. Indeed, it had been 32 years since Australia’s last – and only – equestrian gold medals.
Australia enjoyed its most successful Olympic rowing regatta to date, winning two gold medals. In the men’s double sculls, Peter Antonie and Stephen Hawkins, dubbed the ‘Pocket Rockets’ because of their light body weights, outstayed and outraced their bigger rivals. Sharing the spotlight was the quartet of Andrew Cooper, Nick Green, Mike McKay and James Tomkins, champions of the men’s coxless fours. They would win collective fame as the ‘Oarsome Foursome’, the most feared crew in the world. Prior to Barcelona, Australia had not won a rowing gold medal since Merv Wood’s single scull gold medal in 1948.
It was a Games of tremendous achievement. Among other impressive performances were a third silver medal since 1968 for the men’s hockey team; a first Olympic medal, a bronze, to Susie O’Neill in the women’s 200m butterfly; Danielle Woodward’s silver medal in kayak slalom, the country's first women’s canoe/kayak medal; bronze medals to athletes Tim Forsyth (high jump) and Daniela Costian (discus); the men’s football team placing a best-ever fourth; and a fourth place for 3m springboard diver Michael Murphy, the highest finish by an Australian since 1924.