Spain’s first Olympic Games, held in Barcelona in 1992, marked a milestone for Spanish sports. The 22 medals as well as the organizational success bolstered the international image of a country that had been fighting to integrate itself into the modern world. Today, 25 years and 6 Olympic games later, the list of athletes and teams that have reached the top tier in the world of sports –and not only in the area of the Olympics– is a long one.
It is important to emphasize the presence of women, such as swimmers Mireia Belmonte, gold medallist in the 200-metre butterfly in Rio 2016 and Budapest 2017, and Teresa Perales, who has won a total of 26 Paralympic medals; high jumper Ruth Beitia, first Spaniard to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field; tennis player Garbiñe Muguruza, winner of the French Open (2016) and Wimbledon (2017), and the first Spanish Olympic badminton champion, Carolina Marín, also two-time world champion, and three-time European champion. Some of the best teams include the national basketball and rhythmic gymnastics teams, both current Olympic runners-up, among others. In recent years, the national synchronized swimming teams have also achieved great success, with names such as Gemma Mengual and Ona Carbonell, as well as athletes in rhythmic gymnastics, sailing, water polo and handball.
Of all the sports figures, Rafael Nadal stands out as one of the all-time best for his impressive array of trophies, including 16 Grand Slam titles. He is the tennis player with the most victories of the French Open (10), the most important tennis championship on clay, and has two Olympic gold medals, 30 Masters 1000 tournaments and 4 Davis Cup victories with the Spanish team. In addition to his sporting career, fans and the general public praise his attitude and professional ethics, which are fundamental values in the sport. His sporting quality and international projection place him in the select group of great world-renowned Spanish athletes, such as the golfer Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011, or the cyclist Miguel Induráin from Navarre, now retired, a five-time winner of the Tour de France and two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, which, together with the Vuelta a España, constitute the three world’s three major cycling competitions. Other figures have followed in his wake, such as Alberto Contador, who has confirmed his retirement but was the first Spanish cyclist to win three Grand Tours in stages.
In basketball, the brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, both NBA players (the former currently with the San Antonio Spurs and the latter with the Memphis Grizzlies) are the most internationally known figures. Since the 2006 World Cup in Japan, the national team, with its unrepeatable generation of players, has won medals in several European championships, the Olympic silver medal in Beijing 2008 and London 2012, and the bronze medal in Rio 2016.
Madrid’s Javier Fernández is another athlete who has broken moulds in ice skating, a sport that is not especially well rooted in a Mediterranean country like Spain. World champion in 2015 and 2016, five-time European champion in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and national champion multiple times, he is the best skater in the history of Spain and is ranked number four in the international classification after the World Cup 2017, held in Helsinki.
Motor sports have also produced world-famous figures such as rally driver Carlos Sainz, world champion in 1990 and 1992; Formula One driver Fernando Alonso, and MotoGP rider Marc Márquez, who at just 24 years of age, has won World Motorcycle Championship titles in three categories: 125cc (2010), Moto2 (2012) and three-time world champion in MotoGP (2013, 2014 and 2016). Other champions that must be noted in this section include: Jorge Martínez Aspar, Sito Pons, Álex Crivillé, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Pol Espargaró and Maverick Viñales, among others. Special mention should be made of the recently deceased Angel Nieto, a pioneer in this sport in Spain with his ‘12+1’ world championships.
Lastly, there is Javier Gómez Noya, a Spanish professional triathlete, a five-time world champion and silver medallist in London 2012.
Football’s honour roll
Spain also excels on the global stage of football, one of the most popular spectator sports, especially in Europe, Africa and Latin America. It is also booming in Asia, and particularly in the Middle East, where the World Cup will be held in Qatar in 2022, and in countries such as China, where it is estimated that there are over 100 million followers of Real Madrid, and Japan, the country that is home to the multinational Rakuten, which sponsors FC Barcelona.
These are just a few examples that demonstrate the reach of a sport that at its maximum level, moves millions of euros, from the signing of players to the revenues and the television audiences. Spain has two of the best known and most international football teams: Barcelona and Real Madrid, which are also considered the richest clubs in the world, along with England’s Manchester United. The turnover of both clubs in 2016 reached 620 million euros, income obtained from the summer tours overseas and the sale of merchandise, and both clubs have growing numbers of followers on the five continents: Barcelona has 117 fan clubs outside Spain and 11.4 million followers on Twitter, while Madrid has more than 200 fan clubs and 24.7 million followers. Members of both teams were part of the national team that won the 2010 World Championship held in South Africa, another milestone for the national sport.
The teams in the Spanish league have won the most European competitions, well above those from the English, German and Italian leagues. The television audiences for the final of Europe’s top competition, the Champions League of 2017, totalled around 350 million people in 210 countries, three times more than the Superbowl (111.3 million viewers).