The Scratch Olympics


While the Olympics is going great guns in London, doing its best to justify the price tag that has  blossomed like one of the spectacular fireworks at its opening ceremony from an original estimate of £2.4bn to anywhere between £13bn and £24bn, depending on who you believe, I came up with an idea as to how Valencia could host the Scratch Olympics to bring it back to international sporting prominence without having to divvy out the vast, toilet-flushing quantity of readies that it lavished on its two major white elephants, the Americas Cup and Formula 1. Unfortunately, when I went to review some of the sports arenas I had in mind to stage the events in I found that our Mayoress, Rita Barberá, she of the calm disposition and well considered word, and her cronies had pre-empted me.

We’d have no problem with cycling events because the Town Hall is very proud, and down-right boastful, of its 130 kilometres of cycle lanes. It was while I was tootling around on a stretch near the Municipal Cemetery a few months ago that the seed of the Scratch Olympics was planted.

A three-lane in either direction dual-carriageway has been built along the southern side of the city, needing a series of new intersections with traffic lights. At one of these new intersections a bend in the road has been cut off and a set of traffic lights put in place. Alongside the now defunct section of road was a patch of open scrub land, and an enterprising group of Latinos, mainly Cubans with a smattering of Bolivians, and Ecuadorians, had created a couple of improvised volleyball courts. One end of a length of plastic netting had been strung from a pole hammered into the ground in the scrub land, and the net stretched across the road and anchored to a chain link fence on the other side. They’d even gone to the lengths of marking the outline of the courts with white paint.

On weekend afternoons groups and families of all ages, women included, picked three-a-side teams to wage volleyball war, although that might just have been their spirited way of playing, but it looked pretty ferocious to me. Sweat poured off short brown bodies, most of which were decorated with a tattoo of some description, and dribbled down the waistband of gaudy baggy shorts. Families sat on a rag-bag of plastic chairs under brightly striped beach umbrellas eating spicy tortillas, while teams waiting for their turn sat on bleachers made from a plank supported by a pile of breeze blocks at each end. A few entrepreneurial souls surreptitiously sold beers from a cool box hidden under a blanket.

In contrast to the three-a-side teams of the Latinos, fifty meters along the road on a patch of dirt surrounded by chest high weeds, a group of Indian men played their version of volleyball, and with teams of up to nine-a-side you wonder how everyone got to hit the ball. Shorts and T-shirts, vests and traditional dhoti, tracksuits, jeans – a wardrobe as varied as their gastronomy and culture. Aficionados squatted on their haunches or sat cross-legged on torn-off pieces of cardboard shouting out advice to the players, just as they would in any Hindustani village. On the other side of the cycle track a group of men lounged on the lawned area below shady palms watching their friends steaming in the sun. Where much of the Latino game, with teams one-third the size of the Indian’s, seemed to be based on simply getting the ball over the net, the Indian’s play a much more team-oriented game, aware of their team mates and using each in his position.

Watching the Latino game reminded me of a time a few years ago when I went to a very basic neighbourhood sports ground in Cabañal, the historic section of the port area that lovely Rita has been trying to drive into the ground for her own political ends by dumping all the problem families in the city and allowing it to fester as the drug dealing centre of Valencia. A working-class and ex-fisherman’s enclave, it still had a sense of community, despite the Town Hall’s machinations, and the sports ground was a focal point for grans and granddads to come and watch the kids thrash around a football pitch made of sand, alongside the bigger boys of the Sunday leagues being much more serious, as if they were taking on Barca at Mestalla, Valencia City’s home ground. At the beginning of the afternoon the sand pitches were carefully marked out, but by half-time there was barely a white line recognisable, which made the ref’s job a bit uneasy.

As I was sinking a one euro bathtub of Spanish brandy at the small caff I saw four dumpy Cuban ladies come into the ground pulling behind them their trollies full of the weekly shop. One of them lifted a basketball off the top of her Mercadona bags and they walked over to one of the three volleyball nets, leaving their trollies in a neat row just outside the marked court. For twenty minutes they knocked the ball between them and then returned to their shopping, packed the ball away, and sauntered off home.

I went back last year and discovered a barren plot, the café, groundsman’s office and toilets demolished and the goalposts pulled over. All that was recognisable from the boisterous community sports ground I’d visited earlier were the faded white lines of the volleyball court. Alongside the wasteland was a super-dooper new sports pavilion, fully equipped and functional, but which had been closed within a few months of it opening because there weren’t the funds to run it. Rita and her bare-faced cronies kidded no-one that this had been anything other than a ruse to clear the original sports ground to make way for a road extension she’s been trying to ram through the courts for the last couple of decades, and has been making the lives of Cabañal’s residents hell, despite having lost her case all the way up to the European courts.

While I was down in Cabañal I took a ride to Valencia’s biggest white elephant, the port built for the America’s Cup, which has spent the last four years slowly becoming a semi-wasteland. I watched three young lads of about twelve jumping off the pier into the canal that once saw the pride of the world’s racing fleet sailing up it, but now sees nothing more than the joy-riding catamaran that takes giddy party-goers for a wiz around the bay. The kids were having a great time, so at least we had the spot for the Scratch Olympic diving. At least they were, until two officious jobs-worth’s drove up, one on a motorbike and another in a van, and gave them a stern bollocking, both of them writing the youngsters names down in their notebooks, before watching as the poor kids gathered up their clothes and wandered shame-faced away from the water. Job well done, chaps.

Not deterred by the past, though, I took a ride to the volleyball courts beside the municipal cemetery. The road section had been blocked off with heavy concrete bollards to stop access, and the piece of totally barren and unkempt land had been fenced off at the only reasonably open area, where I’d watched the Indian’s having a great time a few months ago.

So perhaps I should scratch the idea of the Scratch Olympics. We’ve got a world-class velodrome where nary a bike rides, an America’s Cup standard port which hasn’t seen a boat in four years and a Formula 1 race circuit that drivers hate and has been run at a loss since the day it was built and won’t even see any more cars racing because the race has been cancelled for the foreseeable future, because of the bankrupt state of the city, no doubt exacerbated by the 21 million euros they hand over to Bernie Ecclestone each year for the pleasure of letting him run his vastly loss-making enterprise in this fair city. But sadder still, all those free open patches of land or basic cheap-and-cheerful neighbourhood playing fields and sports grounds are now either derelict or off limits for anyone who simply wants a knock-about with their pals.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman, and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

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