Benvinguts to the Catalan Games!

Barcelona flashes its many stylish differences as the arc of the opening arrow begins the dazzling five-ring show

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Imagine a proud, serious old man, not without some gruffness. Imagine that he is a prosperous merchant, having made enough money, on his own terms, to indulge himself in moments of whimsy, flashes of dandy vanity. Imagine further that he has seen empires and invaders come and go. Now, having dusted the furniture and repainted the house, he throws open the doors to his elegant old home to reveal . . . a dazzle of tropi-colored tricks.

That was a little how it felt as Barcelona, the often unshaven but designer- crazy capital of Catalonia, set flame to the Games of the 25th Olympiad. The occasion was a golden opportunity for presenting the city as a shiny new capital of a postnational world. It was also a quadrilingual glimpse into a multicultural future. Music at the celebrations that opened the Games came from an atlas of names -- Ryuichi Sakamoto, Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame), Andrew Lloyd Webber; Placido Domingo was followed by a sea of "living sculptures" designed by a man from the West Indies. And some of the grandest cheers of all came as the unfamiliar Lithuanian flag hung over costumes fashioned by Issey Miyake.

As soon as the opening ceremonies began, moreover, records began falling like tenpins: the most nations competing (172), the most athletes in attendance (almost 11,000, or five times as many as in the Winter Games), the highest number of television viewers (a projected 3.5 billion). But numbers did scant justice to emotions: to the sense of quiet pleasure as one of the first teams to enter was South Africa, here after a 32-year absence; to the shiver of unease as Iran alone paraded behind a man, not a woman, bearing its name; to the bewilderment that met the Unified Team, amid its cacophony of 12 republics' flags. And when Bosnia-Herzegovina appeared, after an eleventh-hour entry, people rose spontaneously around the stands to cheer.

The most prominent country in the early going, however, had been one that did not march but made its presence felt at every turn: independent-minded Catalonia, which is determined to cast these as the Catalan, not the Spanish, Games. A longtime enemy of Castile, delighting in a language that Franco had banned, Barcelona was eager not just to show off its faster, higher, stronger ^ self -- reconstruction is almost as trendy as deconstruction here -- but to emphasize its distance from the Spain of myth, and of Madrid. FREEDOM FOR CATALONIA signs (in English) were draped from balconies and shoulders, and buttons and stickers proclaiming Catalonian independence were handed out even to kids from California. The Catalan flag, four bloodred fingers on a field of yellow, seemed to be fluttering from every window -- 28 of them on a single building! -- and not one Spanish banner was in sight. As the opening arrow approached, every other shop seemed to be saying benvinguts -- "welcome" in the new Olympic language of Catalan -- to what was locally known as the Jocs Olimpics.

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