Spanish athletics legends (© AFP / Getty Images)
Spanish athletics can trace its origins back to the late 1860s, when gymnastics clubs often organised athletics competitions as part of their activities. In the first two decades of the 20th century, a number of regional federations were formed and championships held. Consequently, it was a logical step that on 27 March 1920, after the fifth edition of the Spanish Cross Country Championships held earlier in the day, what is now the Royal Spanish Athletics Federation was founded in Bilbao.
The timing was appropriate as the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games were being held later in the year and it provided an appropriate opportunity for Spanish athletes to get their first taste of formal international action, although Baron de Coubertin had been urging his contacts in Spain for years to send competitors again to the Olympics after several sports – although not athletics – had been represented in Paris 20 years before.
Fourteen athletes were sent to Antwerp and despite the contingent returning home without anyone making a final it whetted the appetite for international competition.
Spain’s first international match took place in 1925 against neighbours Portugal, from 1929 Spanish runners contested the International Cross Country Championships, and in 1950 Spain competed in the European Athletic Championships for the first time.
Distance tradition takes root in the 1970s
Nevertheless, results were relatively modest until the 1960s.
The first Spanish athlete of international distinction was arguably the long and triple jumper Luis Felipe Areta, who won both disciplines in the 1963 Mediterranean Games and then finished sixth in the latter event at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games.
In the 1970s, Spanish long distance runners started to make their mark, notably Mariano Haro and Carmen Valero.
Haro had first come to attention when he finished third in the 1961 International Cross Country Championships junior race and went on to dominate domestic distance running during the following decade. However, his best performances were to come after he turned 30.
He finished second in the 1972 International Cross Country Championships and then just missed out on becoming the first Spanish athlete to win an Olympic medal when he finished fourth in the epic 1972 10,000m final in Munich, before going on to win the silver medal at each of the first three official IAAF World Cross Country Championships from 1973-75.
However, Valero succeeded where Haro had just fallen short and after finishing 25th, ninth and third at the previous three championships, won at the 1976 World Cross Country Championships and then defended her crown 12 months later.
Llopart collects first Olympic athletics medal
A Spanish athlete finally stepped on the Olympic podium 60 years after the country’s first participation in the sport when Jorge Llopart took the 50km race walk silver medal at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games.
The 1980s were to be a transformational decade for Spanish athletics, not least in race walking.
Along with Llopart, the versatile Jose Marin also provided the foundations for Spain’s burgeoning role as a walking superpower.
Marin won the 1982 European 20km title – and also took the 50km silver in Athens – and then finished second in the longer event at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in 1983 before getting a bronze over 20km four years later in Rome.
In this era, the 16-year-old Marin-coached Mari Cruz Diaz won the inaugural 10km race walk at the 1986 European Athletics Championships.
Middle distance stars Jose Abascal, who got the bronze behind the current World Athletics President Sebastian Coe and fellow Briton Steve Cram in the memorable 1984 Olympic 1500m final, and 1987 World Athletics Championships 1500m silver medallist Jose Luis Gonzalez also challenged the best in their area of expertise.
Cacho’s home stage heroics in 1992
In October 1986, Barcelona won the right to stage the 1992 Olympic Games and this proved the stimulus for a huge investment in sport by both the public and private sector in the hope that Spain would surpass itself in terms of medals on a home stage.
This certainly proved true in athletics. Barcelona is most closely associated with Fermin Cacho’s stunning 1500m triumph – a victory that many still consider to be the most memorable moment in Spanish Olympic or athletics history – but the accolade of being Spain’s first Olympic athletics gold medallist actually belongs to 20km race walker Daniel Plaza who triumphed eight days earlier on the opening day of the athletics programme.
Cacho was to go on to further glories even if they never quite matched his Olympic win.
He won the 1994 European 1500m title, took the Olympic silver medal in the defence of his title in 1996 and finished second in the 1993 and 1997 World Athletics Championships 1500m finals. Cacho also set a European 1500m record of 3:28.95 in 1997 that remained the continental standard until Mo Farah broke it in 2013.
Following in the footsteps of Plaza’s success in Barcelona, Spaniards took both the gold medals in the 1993 World Athletics Championships men’s race walks with Valenti Massana and Jesus Angel Garcia taking the 20km and 50km titles respectively, the country’s first gold medals on this particular global stage, with Plaza also getting the bronze in the shorter race.
Marathoners begin to make their mark
In the second half of the 1990s it was the turn of Spanish marathon runners to make their mark with Martin Fiz securing the 1995 World Athletics Championships gold and then being part of a memorable duel in 1997 with his compatriot Abel Anton, which saw the latter prevail in Athens by just five seconds.
Anton then went on to retain his world title in sweltering conditions in front of his family and friends in Seville two years later while long jumper Niurka Montalvo provided Spain with what remains to this day their only women’s victory at the World Athletics Championships.
At the start of the 21st century, the popular shot putter Manuel Martinez did much to show that Spanish athletes could aspire to success beyond endurance events.
In an international career that lasted almost two decades, Martinez progressed from being the 1993 European U20 champion to taking world and European indoor titles as well as a 2004 Olympic bronze medal although, surprisingly to many, he never climbed on the podium during a record eight shot put appearances at the World Athletics Championships.
Beitia triumphs in Rio
Turn the clock forward to recent times when in 2016, Ruth Beitia followed up her three successive European high jump wins from 2012 to 2016 by finally winning on the global stage when she took the Olympic title in her event in Rio de Janeiro. Her triumph as the first Spanish female athlete to win Olympic gold made her a household name in Spain.
Looking ahead to the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games next summer and then the Oregon 2022 World Athletics Championships as well as Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships, Spain has high expectations of being among the medals again.
Rio 2016 110m hurdles silver medallist and Doha 2019 bronze medallist Orlando Ortega should still be among the men entering medal consideration. Meanwhile, race walking continues to be a strength with Spain able to boast of the likes of 2015 world 20km winner Miguel Angel Lopez as well as 2018 European 20km champions Alvaro Martin and Maria Perez.
Phil Minshull for World Athletics