This month alone, Spain won their first soccer World Cup, cyclist Alberto Contador bagged a third Tour de France title and tennis world number one Rafael Nadal triumphed for a second time at Wimbledon.
Photographs of Contador clad in his yellow winners’ jersey dominated this week’s front pages, alongside Fernando Alonso in his red Ferrari strip after he won the German F1 Grand Prix on Sunday, conveniently chiming with the colours of Spain’s flag. Also grabbing the spotlight have been basketball player Pau Gasol, whose Los Angeles Lakers are NBA champions for a second straight season, and MotoGP championship leader Jorge Lorenzo, who roared to victory at the US Grand Prix on Sunday.
In stark contrast, headlines on the economy have been grim. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the euro zone and strict austerity measures to trim a gaping budget deficit provoked a call by unions for a general strike in September, awakening fears the country could slide back into recession.
Several analysts said the current wave of sporting success was due to high levels of investment in facilities in the 30 years since Spain became a democracy and its economy closed the gap with wealthier European neighbors.
Others added that many of Spain’s world champion footballers had risen through excellent youth schemes at their clubs, such as Barcelona’s legendary “La Masia.”
“Football is the majority sport in Spain with a very high level of participation and a very important league. We can say football has finally found the level it deserves,” said Angel Barajas, associate professor of financial management at the University of Vigo.
“There has also been success in basketball with a generation of exceptional players but also with a lot of support and a league which is the second biggest after the NBA,” he added. But one economist said the streak of victories was not as exceptional as euphoric headlines suggest because it was not broad-based.
He pointed out that Spain’s medal haul at the 2008 Olympic games -- it was ranked 15th -- was roughly in line with the country’s status as the world’s No. 9 economy. “Spain happens to be winning in sports with a massive following,” said Nicolas Lopez, research director at the MG Valores brokerage in Madrid. “Winning the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Tour de France gets huge media coverage but they are three isolated sports.”
Spaniards have of course shone in the past -- like golfer Severiano Ballesteros, cyclist Federico Bahamontes or tennis player Arantxa Sanchez Vicario -- but sports experts hope the current wave of success will inspire young athletes to do well.
“As well as the technical factors of each sport or athlete, there is a general conviction to exploit ability to the full and not to consider oneself inferior to anyone,” said Antonio Martin, director of the Masters programme in sports management at the IE Business School in Madrid. Placido Rodriguez, a professor of economics at Oviedo University, noted many of Spain’s top athletes were relatively young and could chalk up successes for years to come.