BARCELONA '92 OLYMPICS : The Dance Is On in Catalonia : Opening ceremony: The culture of a proud people is put on display for the rest of the world.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than 10 years after it was constructed, Montjuic Stadium stood ready to greet 5,000 athletes to the People's Olympics, an alternative for socialist countries to the 1936 Summer Olympics that would be held later that year in fascist Germany.

But on the morning of the opening ceremony, for which 20,000 tickets had been sold, a water polo player from the Spanish national team, Carlos Pardo, arrived at the stadium to find the gates locked.

"The signs said, 'Games Canceled Because of War,' " Pardo, now a prominent sports journalist in Barcelona, recalled recently.

The opening shots of the Spanish Civil War had been fired. Less than three years later, fascism would take hold here, in the capital of fiercely independent Catalonia, as well as the country's 16 other regions, in the personification of Gen. Francisco Franco.

In 1941, a few hundred yards from Montjuic Stadium, at the headquarters for Franco's secret police, los benemeritos , Catalonia's deposed president, Lluis Companys, was executed. Thousands of others who resisted Franco's dictatorship were killed or tortured.

Franco tried to bury Catalonia's culture as well. The flag could not be displayed, the anthem played nor the language spoken. Even the traditional welcoming dance, the Sardana, was banned.

Now, for the next 16 days, 17 years after Franco's death and the birth of democracy in Spain, Catalonia will try to define its place in the world by playing host to the 25th Summer Olympics.

Although there were four soccer games Friday, including the United States' 2-1 loss to Italy, the Games officially begin tonight with an opening ceremony at Montjuic Stadium, where the gates, 56 years after the aborted People's Olympics, will be open to 70,000 spectators, 15,000 athletes and officials from 172 countries.

Dancers will welcome them with the Sardana.

"It will be the proudest, most emotional moment of my life," said Barcelona businessman Xavier Molinas, an anti-Franco student activist in the late '60s.

Many Catalonians did not wait for the opening ceremony to express joy. An estimated 20,000, including 6,000 in Barcelona, danced the Sardana on Wednesday night in the streets of 25 Catalonian cities, towns and villages.

Two weeks earlier, people here had wrapped a giant Catalonian flag around the so-called Olympic Ring, which includes Montjuic Stadium and several other venues for the Games atop a mountain that overlooks the city and the Mediterranean Sea.

Recognition from the International Olympic Committee was not so easily attainable, even though the president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, is a Catalonian. The Catalan Olympic Committee's request that its athletes be allowed to march separately from the Spanish team in today's parade of nations, behind their own republic's flag, was denied.

But Catalonia's flag and anthem will be part of the opening ceremony, and Catalan will be one of these Games' four official languages, along with Spanish, French and English.

The language issue is so sensitive that Samaranch and Barcelona's mayor, Pasqual Maragall, spoke French in a news conference Friday to avoid offending either the Catalonians or the Spanish.

Concerned that the pro-Catalan sentiment will become anti-Spanish, Maragall appealed to his constituents to respect the national symbols. Although only a vocal minority of Catalonians appear to favor independence, derision of Spain is a popular pastime here, and there is speculation that the country's flag--as well as King Juan Carlos--will be jeered during today's opening ceremony. The reign in Spain is mostly irrelevant here.

"Democratic Spain is a pluralistic model respected everywhere," Maragall said. "The Spanish flag is the common symbol of all the regions that are part of this democracy. It should be respected."

It might be, if one could find it. The governments of Barcelona and Catalonia seem to be competing to see how many of their own flags they can place on the streets, handing them out to anyone who will take them. Catalonia claims to be leading, 35,000 to 20,000.

Within the Olympic movement, Catalonia's fervor for recognition is consistent with a trend. East and West Germany have unified since the 1988 Summer Olympics at Seoul, but others are breaking apart.

The Yugoslavia of 1988 now consists of five separate entities, the Soviet Union of four. When the 1996 Summer Games open at Atlanta, the Soviet Union, as it formerly was known, will be 15 countries. By then, Slovakia, Quebec, Catalonia and the Kurds might be independent, and--who knows?--California might even want its own team. After all, 144 of the 610 U.S. athletes competing here are from the state.

But the theme that Samaranch has promoted for these Games is unity. It will be the first time since 1972 that all the movement's major countries have participated in the Summer Olympics. That includes South Africa, which has not been welcome since 1960 because of that country's previous policy of racial separation.

There is, of course, more to the Olympics than politics. There also are 28 official and three demonstration sports. Twelve of the former Soviet republics, known here as the Unified Team, are slight favorites to win the medal race, with the United States and Germany in close pursuit.

The host country is not expected to be a factor, considering that it has won only four gold medals in the Summer Olympics since the start of the modern Olympics in 1896.

Two of its best athletes, swimmer Martin Zubero and track sprinter Sandra Myers, were born and grew up in the United States, earning the right to compete for Spain because of dual citizenships. Myers, a native Kansan who went to college at Cal State Northridge and UCLA, was considered a medal contender until she injured her Achilles' tendon recently.

But the real winner when the Games are finished probably will be Barcelona, which spent almost $9 billion to improve its infrastructure, along with its image, in hopes of improving its standard of living and becoming a European destination city for tourists, like Paris, London and Rome.

The city is opening its arms to the world, and perhaps, with some coaxing, even the rest of Spain.

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