For decades, awards ceremonies at international competitions have been awkward occasions for Spanish athletes. As representatives of a nation whose anthem was wordless, they stood at podiums in pained silence, or hummed along while others sang. This past summer, the Spanish Olympic Committee sought to end that humiliation.
"Athletes have been telling us for a long time that they feel a little silly up there on the podium singing 'la, la, la,' " said Alejandro Blanco, the committee's president. "We wanted to change that."
The committee worked with the Society of Authors and Editors to create a public competition to put lyrics to the anthem.
The music for Spain's national hymn, "La Marcha Real," was composed as a military theme in the 18th century. On two occasions, lyrics were written to accompany the music – first under King Alfonso XIII and again during the Franco regime. But in each case, they fell out of favor with the passing of their respective governments. Since the dictatorship ended in 1975, the Spanish anthem has had no words.
That was about to change last week when the Olympic Committee's six expert judges, after considering more than 7,000 entries, announced they had reached a decision. The winning lyrics, written by a 52-year-old unemployed man named Paulino Cubero, began: "Viva España! We sing together with different voices and a single heart!"
"The words fit the music, which was the main problem to solve," said University of Salamanca music professor José María García Laborda. "But it seems to me that the lyrics don't much serve to exalt the spirit of the singer. They're very general, very mild. They don't say anything special."
It is no surprise that in a country frequently divided by regional identities and ideological differences, the new lyrics failed to win broad support from Spain's politicians.
Three leaders of the Basque Nationalist Party claimed they hadn't even read the words, and Joan Tardà, spokesperson for the autonomy-minded Catalan Republican Left, said, "It's not my hymn. It's not my nation."
In Spain's two main parties, opinions ranged from tepid to scornful. The conservative Popular Party's Jorge Fernández Díaz suggested, with little enthusiasm, that "the lyrics don't seem bad to me," while Socialist vice president Carmen Calvo was more blunt: "I don't like them. They're out of date."
Plácido Domingo was scheduled to sing the winning lyrics at an Olympic Committee gala on Jan. 21. But because of the less-than-fervent reception, Mr. Blanco announced on Wednesday that the Committee was recalling the lyrics, and canceling the celebration. "[The winning entry] generated controversy, and in some cases, rejection," he said at a press conference. "The lyrics had to meet two requirements that they did not fulfill: they had to unite people and there had to be consensus."
A deeply disappointed Mr. Cubero, who upon winning the competition had proudly explained that he wrote the lyrics ordinary Spaniards, said he would again be registering with the Spanish unemployment office next month.
"These are the miseries of our country," he said. "We can only talk about different nations, not a shared one."