A referendum being held in Spain that carries significant geopolitical weight could also have an impact on swimming. Catalonians are turning out for a non-binding vote on the independence most eastern Spanish region – which includes the Catalonian capital of Barcelona.
The vote has been declared illegal by Spain’s highest court, and police violence has broken out in Barcelona in an apparent attempt to prevent Catalonians from casting votes in the referendum, but if the election is ultimately pro-independence, it would be the second such vote in the last 3 years – after better than 80% of the population informally voted in favor of secession in 2014.
Aside from delayed soccer matches, there are many potential ramifications for sport, just as there was in the failed (and much less violent) Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Specifically, if Catalonia were to succeed, they would presumably then begin competing as an independent nation in international sporting competitions from the rest of Spain. Many of the country’s top athletes hail from the region, which is especially true in Spain – where the most successful swimmer in the country’s history hails from Catalonia.
Mireia Belmonte is a 4-time Olympic medalist, including a 2016 gold in the 200 fly. She is the first female Olympic champion in Spanish swimming history, and has as many Olympic medals as all other Spanish swimmers combined.
In fact, most of the country’s great swimmers have represented Catalonia – including their first female Olympic medalist Nina Zhivanevskaya, and other well-known names of the modern era like Marina Garcia, Africa Zamorano, Jessica Vall, Judit Ignatio, Marita Gonzalez, Aschwin Wildeboer, Victor Goicoechea.
Sergio Lopez, once known for a breaststroke bronze medalist at the 1988 Olympics but now better known as a coach, was also born in Barcelona.
If Catalonia were able to gain independence, and subsequent IOC recognition, by the 2020 Olympic Games, it would immediately become a competitive team in the pool – if all of its top swimmers chose their Catalonian heritage over their broader Spanish heritage, which would likely be offered to them in the event of a split.
Catalonia is home to many of the sport’s international stars – including tennis player soccer player Gerard Pique, and basketball stars Pau and Marc Gasol.
When asked recently, Belmonte said that “I do not like to comment on this subject. I always say that Catalonia is Spain,” which seems to read that she’s pro-unity for the country, though is not as definitive as others have been.
There will be grander implications than simply place of birth for these athletes, of course. For those who aren’t known enough to have endorsements, there will be matters of who will provide funding and training oversight for the Catalonian athletes, and who might choose the stability of the RFEN (Royal Spanish Swimming Federation) over the Catalonian federation, which is a well-organized regional federation, but a regional federation none-the-less. Regardless, Catalonia has shown itself as a swimming hotbed over generations, and so the sport is not shielded from the fallout of these political matters.