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.
The celebrities of Barcelona were the American men’s basketball team, known as the 'Dream Team'. Professional players were allowed to compete for the first time, and the US team cruised to the gold medal led by NBA legends Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. For Jordan, it was his second gold medal, having also competed at the Games in 1984.
Gymnast Vitali Sherbo, competing for the Unified Team, was the most successful athlete, winning six gold medals. Sherbo, from Belarus, witnessed the Belarussian flag and anthem being used at the Olympics for the first time. American identical twins Karen and Sarah Josephson took synchronised swimming to a new level of synchronicity, winning the pairs gold medal. Other champions to impress included swimmers Alex Popov of the Unified Team (two gold) and Hungarian Kriztina Egerszegi (three gold); Algeria’s first Olympic heroine, Hassiba Boulmerka, in the women’s 1500m on the track; Cuba’s outstanding baseball and women’s volleyball teams; and the Spanish football team, whose 3-2 win over Poland in the final sparked wild celebrations.
The Olympic program continued to grow. Baseball and badminton debuted as new sports, judo events for women were held for the first time, and a handful of other new events, including the return of canoe/kayak slalom, meant there were now 26 sports and 259 events being contested.The Unified Team led the medal table with 45 gold, eight more than the United States in second place. But the two stars of the medal table were Cuba, in fifth place with 14 gold medals, and host nation Spain, with 13 gold medals. In its previous 16 appearances at the Games before 1992, Spain had won a total of four gold medals.