ON the day the Olympic torch entered Spain on its way from Athens to Barcelona, someone popped up with a troubling banner. It read: "Freedom for Catalonia."
Never mind that the sign was written in English. Never mind that Catalonian separatism is puny, as independence movements go. The national government fumed. More displays popped up.
One group planted Catalonian flags along the Olympic torch's route. The son of the Catalonian regional president, Jordi Pujol, ran one torch relay with friends, carrying the Catalonian flag and a "Freedom for Catalonia" banner.
When the national government complained, Mr. Pujol said it was overreacting to "constructive Catalonianism."
The rest of the world may think the 1992 Olympics will be held in Spain. Here, residents are quick to point out the Games will be held in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.
"Logically, the prestige will be where the Games take place," says Josep Lluis Vilaseca, minister of sports for the Catalonian regional government. That means Barcelona and Catalonia will reap the lion's share of prestige. "Also, the entire organization of Spanish states will be benefited from it."
The "organization of Spanish states"? That's a curious way to say "Spain."
Catalonia has always felt distinct. One of 17 Spanish regions, it accounts for one-fifth of the national economy. Its standard of living is closer to that of Britain and the Netherlands than to the rest of Spain. It has its own Romance language (Catalan) and its own history. Alternately independent and conquered for centuries, Catalonia's autonomy was last abolished in 1938 by Gen. Francisco Franco. Separatist yearnings, even the language, were stifled during the Franco dictatorship. Now, the Olympics is
giving voice to those yearnings.
"This is the moment [to voice it], but it was the same 20 years ago," says Ignasi de Delas, an economist with the local Chamber of Commerce. "In general, we want more authority and we want to make the decisions about our future more by ourselves."
In the regional elections in March, Catalan separatists got only about 10 percent of the vote. There was a Catalan terrorist organization during the 1970s, but a police raid appears to have wiped it out. Olympic officials are far more worried about a Basque terrorist attack than about one from radical Catalonians.
But the Olympics has brought Catalan separatism to the fore. Catalan (along with English, French, and Spanish) will be an official language of the Olympic Games. Thanks to an agreement between Pujol and the mayor of Barcelona (a supporter of the national government), the Catalan flag will be flown; the Catalan hymn will be included in the inauguration ceremony.
A few years ago, Catalonian independence was unthinkable, says Xavier Segura, a local banker. Now, even he thinks it might be possible in 20 to 30 years.