Spanish athletes set winning trend

Spain's Olympic hopes soar after recent championship victories suggest that increased investments and better athlete training are paying off.

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Fernando Torres celebrates Spain's Euro 2008 soccer win.
Frank gunn/AP
Rafael Nadal won the French Open and Wimbledon this year.
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Victory run: Carlos Sastre wins the 2008 Tour de France.

A cheer rose from Madrid's Plaza de San Andrés on Sunday as cycling fans, gathered around televisions, watched native son Carlos Sastre coast around Paris's Arc de Triomphe to win the Tour de France. But the ovation was polite compared to the roar that greeted Rafael Nadal's Wimbledon victory two weeks earlier or the raucous all-night party ignited by Spain's soccer team when it claimed the European Cup on June 29. Spain, it seems, is getting accustomed to winning.

With this impressive string of victories, Spain has emerged as an international sports powerhouse. Indeed, in 2007, Spanish athletes competing in Olympic Federation sports won 66 medals in international competitions and 114 in European ones, up from 21 and 22, respectively, in 2003. Spain is now readying for unprecedented performances at the Olympics.

"In June and July we have had two months without comparison in our history," Jaime Lissavetzky, secretary of state for sports, said at a press conference Sunday. "It proves that there are many high-level athletes in this country, and it could be a good omen for the Olympics."

Indeed, the past two months encompass an impressive list of triumphs. Mr. Sastre is the third Spaniard in a row to win the Tour de France. Mr. Nadal's defeat of the No. 1-ranked Roger Federer at Wimbledon came after he crushed the Swiss player at the French Open just two months earlier. On Sunday, Nadal positioned himself to replace Mr. Federer as the top-ranked player in the world when he won the Canadian Masters in Toronto. Meanwhile, in its European cup win, the first since the country became a democracy, Spain easily outplayed the usually powerful Germany.

Spain is also making strides in a host of other sports. In June, the Los Angeles Lakers reached the NBA Finals after adding agile center Pau Gasol at mid-season.

Golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez tied for fifth at The Masters in April, and last week Sergio García contended until late in golf's latest major, the British Open at Birkdale. Motorcycle champion Dani Pedrosa and Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso also deserve mention.

In fact, Spain has long placed stellar athletes on the world stage. It has been developing its basketball talent for years (last season it had five players in the NBA, the most of any country beside the US, France, Serbia, and Argentina). Its national basketball team won the FIBA World Championship in Japan two years ago.

Between them, golfers Seve Ballesteros and José María Olazábal won seven majors between 1979 and 1999. Miguel Indurain won five consecutive Tours de France in the early 1990s. And from Arantxa Sánchez's four grand slam titles to the national team's Davis Cup victories in 2000 and 2004, the country's grand tennis tradition predates Nadal.

What have often seemed like isolated victories are becoming a national trend. This change can be explained in part by Spain's increased prosperity. As the country has become wealthier, its citizens have grown bigger and stronger. The first generation of Spaniards born since Spain became a democracy in 1978 are, on average, nine centimeters taller than those born in the 1940s (roughly three centimeters more than the average European increase for that period).

"Before, no one could afford to eat much meat, so the diet wasn't very rich in protein," says Oscar Fornet, sportswriter for the Spanish daily El Mundo. "But now we have the same quality of life and the same diet as the rest of Europe."

Coupled with Spain's economic boom, its membership in the European Union has also brought greater investment in sports. In the past five years, state subsidies to federal sports associations have increased to 75 million euros from 60 million in 2003. "Our facilities are so good now that we've got athletes like Lance Armstrong coming ... to train here," adds Mr. Fornet.

Training opportunities and regimens for Spanish athletes have also improved. Pursuing a newer approach to strength training, Nadal's coach has learned to steer him away from weights, which has improved the flexibility of the already muscular tennis star.

And the country's cyclists, traditionally strong only in mountain climbs, have improved their sprints by joining foreign teams – such as Sastre's Danish team CSC Saxo Bank.

Such changes bode well for Spain's Olympic prospects. Last week, Spanish Olympic Committee President Alejandro Blanco told reporters that this would be the country's "strongest ever Olympic team."

While Nadal makes Spain a medal favorite, it may be synchronized swimmer Gemma Mengual who carries Spaniards' most fervent hopes. Ms. Mengual has won four world championships but never an Olympic medal, barely missing a bronze in Athens in 2004. Now 31, she will be competing in her final Olympics. But regardless of Mengual's performance, Spain is poised to make its mark in Beijing.

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