MADRID (Reuters) - Think Spanish sport and images that spring to mind include the nation’s all-conquering soccer team, Rafa Nadal hoisting aloft the French Open trophy or Fernando Alonso burning up a Formula One track in his Ferrari.
While these are some of the highest-profile and wealthiest athletes on the planet, and a source of immense national pride, recession-hobbled Spain is increasingly having to face up to a new reality marked by stinging budget cuts that threaten the country’s status as a hive of sporting excellence.
Elite competitors from athletics and swimming to rowing and gymnastics are being denied basic facilities, face delays in grant payments and in some cases, are forced to pay for travel, accommodation and equipment.
They are scarcely the ideal conditions for a bid to improve on a disappointing 21st-place finish in the medal table at last year’s London Olympics when the next Summer Games take place in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Nor does the current financial crunch suggest Spain will be reliving the euphoria of Barcelona 1992 or emulating the stunning performance of 2012 hosts Britain if Madrid beats Istanbul and Tokyo to win the right to host the Summer Olympics in 2020.
Local media talk of a “crisis” and the issue has been given an unusual amount of coverage alongside the latest news about soccer giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.
“The moment will come when all Spanish athletes are reduced to mediocrity,” gymnast Isaac Botella, who was sixth in the men’s vault at the London Olympics, told radio station Cadena Ser this week.
Botella said he had not received any grant cash since January and without regular employment, was having to rely on his parents for support.
“It hurts quite a lot and you lose motivation,” the 29-year-old added.
”I couldn’t afford to buy a pair of short trousers for the summer and it’s embarrassing to ask my mother.
“It has an effect on your training, you are down in the dumps and your work is of poorer quality.”
Botella’s experience is not an isolated case.
He and his disgruntled team mates sent an open letter to the gymnastics federation (RFEG) last month complaining that budget cuts had left them with only one physiotherapist for 32 athletes and practically no medical services.
Carlos Perez, a kayak gold medalist with Saul Craviotto in Beijing in 2008, angrily told Marca sports daily last week he would have to pay his own way to compete at the world championships in Duisburg starting next month.
“It’s a disgrace having to pay to represent Spain,” Perez told the newspaper.
The tribulations of Botella, Perez and others like them are partly the result of deep cuts to government subsidies for Spain’s sports federations, part of a wider effort to rein in state spending.
Public assistance totaled 76.3 million euros ($98.1 million) in 2009 but has more than halved since then to a mere 34.1 million this year.
The soccer federation (RFEF), which has a host of corporate sponsors and is flush with cash after a run of success in international tournaments, can afford to forego its subsidy and is not affected by the cuts.
For most of the rest, however, the picture is anything but rosy and a recent report in El Pais newspaper suggested 25 of Spain’s 63 federations were flirting with bankruptcy.
The plight of the athletics federation (RFEA) is typical. Its subsidy was slashed 47 percent this year compared with 2012 and had sunk to 2.8 million euros from 7 million in 2008, according to RFEA president Jose Maria Odriozola.
Spanish track and field athletes have performed particularly poorly in recent years and failed to win a single Olympic medal in Beijing or London.
With even less cash available for athletes and technical staff, the outlook is bleak.
The federation had trimmed 23 of 64 permanent staff, the value of grants for athletes had fallen 45 percent and those preparing for Rio 2016 will have as much as 35 percent less funding than before the London Games, Odriozola told Reuters.
“We hope that the general economic situation improves and that at least this year’s level of subsidy will be maintained,” he said.
“We expect a bigger subsidy that reflects our merits and the importance of our sport.”
The Spanish volleyball federation (RFEVB) depended even more heavily on government handouts than athletics, with subsidies making up roughly half its budget compared to 35 percent for the RFEA, according to secretary general Juan Pedro Sanchez.
The RFEVB’s subsidy for 2013 is a mere 843,000 euros, compared with 2.2 million in 2008, Sanchez told Reuters.
“On the economic level it’s going to be very tough,” he said. “We hope things remain stable now but such deep cuts like this year are very difficult for the federations to cope with.”
A further dimension to the story is the perception that some federations have not been run as well as they should have and that they are partly responsible for their current woes.
Some athletes have complained that they are the ones who are suffering while officials continue to pay themselves fat salaries and benefit from free travel and generous expenses.
“The federations present a devastating and unsustainable picture in the light of the current economic crisis, the most severe Spain has experienced in recent decades,” El Pais wrote.
“It is the fruit of disorder and a lack of budget control in the bonanza times, exaggerated by the notion that sport is different, that reality does not affect it and that rigor, control and austerity are not applicable.”
($1 = 0.7778 euros)
Editing by John O'Brien