Barcelona: Hosting the Olympics of culture
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Runners, swimmers and jumpers may be flocking to
Athens this summer, but Barcelona is hosting a different kind of Olympics -- a five-month cultural and intellectual forum
on solving the world's problems.
Organizers say they expect more than five million visitors to converge on this Mediterranean and former
Olympic city starting this week for the 2004 Forum of Cultures -- part festival, part meeting-of-minds on broad themes like
peace, cultural diversity and sustainable development.
For Barcelona it's a chance to recover the international limelight it basked in back in 1992 when it
hosted the Olympics -- not to mention rake in tourist dollars and give itself a long-overdue facelift.
For visitors it means dozens of conferences and cultural exhibits, 450 concerts by performers like
Bob Dylan and Sting, plays, dance shows and speeches by guests such as former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and Brazilian
President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.
It's like a "cultural Olympics," said Forum spokesman Oleguer Sarsenadas. "We hope the Forum will be
an international event on par with the Olympics or the World Expo, only we're bringing together individuals, not countries."
The city and regional governments and private investors have spent billions transforming Barcelona's
northern shore in preparation for the forum, which runs through September 26.
"Everything works toward the Forum's goal of finding new models of dealing with the world's problems,"
Yet there is a definite pragmatic side to it all, despite the feel-good veneer.
"Barcelona needs an excuse to get necessary urban work finished," Sarsenadas said. "In the past 100
years Barcelona has hosted two World Expos and an Olympic Games; now we've invented the Forum. In part, all of these projects
have been excuses for urban renewal."
Some euro380 million (US$460 million) of public and private money are funding the Forum events, while
a whopping euro2.2 billion (US$2.6 billion) has been spent on the festival's infrastructure, which includes a total transformation
of the city's once-marginalized and crime-ridden northern shore.
The 125-acre (50-hectare) site features a large new port, a public plaza that organizers say is second
only to Tiananmen Square in size and southern Europe's largest conference center.
There's also a new beach, a park and a striking triangular building designed by Swiss architects Herzog
and De Meuron that supporters hope will become what they call Barcelona's Guggenheim.
The city promises that the Forum site will be profitable after the festival is over as a venue for
large trade conferences.
But the event is not without critics.
An anti-globalization group called the Assembly of Resistance to the Forum argues that widely embraced
topics like peace and diversity are just excuses for the city to earn more money with tourism.
And Barcelona's Federation of Neighborhood Associations says the Forum has taken priority over more
important urban issues like health care and housing.
"Housing is a tremendous problem in Barcelona, and thousands of families live without water or electricity.
With just 10 percent of what they've invested in the forum they could have solved housing problems for 23,000 low-income families,"
said Eva Fernandez, the federation president.
Organizers are confident in the success of the Forum, which has been in the works since 1997.
"The Forum has created a lot of expectations," said director of communications Xavier Marcet. "It's
absolutely new and absolutely innovative, but everything points to the fact that it will be a great success."