BARCELONA — In the old, bloody days, when his was the only sport worth talking about in this country, the young man’s courage would make him a hero. Kings would applaud. Senoritas would throw roses into the ring.
Now he stands alone in an old brick arena. It is Sunday morning, the first full day of the Summer Olympics, which might as well be a million miles from here. There are no Olympic symbols in the Placa de Toros. There are only faded posters and a sound that echoes from the wooden stalls below — ca-clump, ca-clump — the sound of bulls that will die tonight. He folds his arms. He watches them move.
“Most men, they do not like to see the bulls before they fight,” he says.
“But I am an exception. I come even when I do not have a fight.”
He nods his head. “Just to look.”
Here stands the lonely matador, in cotton slacks, black loafers, short brown hair and a jeweled crucifix around his neck. He is only 27, his name is Manolo Porcel, and he lives with his parents and his six brothers in a cramped apartment by the airport. He is part of a dying breed that once symbolized this nation, macho men ready to stab the beast. You wouldn’t even think of an Olympics here in the 19th century without a bullfight. Now they can’t push it far enough away.
“Politicians,” he sighs.
Across the city, little girls are diving off a platform, and some NBA millionaires are pretending to give a game to a team of Angolans. Here, in the land of his birth, Manolo gazes at the bulls and wishes he were in action tonight, waving the sword, tipping his hat. Where are his Olympics, he wonders? Bullfights and matadors grow scarce
It is no longer politically correct for Spaniards to love bullfights, especially not in Barcelona, where they have cut the season down to a few lonely months, and turned one of the two main bull rings into a concert arena. The country that inspired Ernest Hemingway to write “Death in the Afternoon” wants no more bulls dead, the hell with tradition. Catalonia, where the Games are held, wants to throw a blanket over the thing altogether.
“The people who make these Olympics want the world to see how we are modern as all of Europe,” Manolo says. “This, they think, is primitive.”
Some old men walk up. They wear caps and smoke cigars and have bellies that hang over their belts. Bullfight fans. One is asked what he thinks of Manolo, and he wags a finger.
“Good,” he croaks. “Very good matador.”
There was the night when Manolo fought with exceptional style and was awarded the bull’s ear by el presidente. There was the night when he had to leap into the ring and kill the bull that just moments before had gored his fellow matador in the stomach. There was the special night when he wore el traje de luces, the suit of lights. There was even the night in Barcelona, not long ago, when he heard the cheers of “Ole!” on a warm Sunday evening.
But bullfights grow scarce, and Manolo — who, like most young matadors is following the path of an older relative, his uncle, a retired matador — is lucky if he gets 15 corridas a year. Unlike Carl Lewis, he has no agent. Unlike Summer Sanders, he books his own dates. He phones organizers, or they phone him. He goes where there is work.
“I hope, one day, to support myself only as a matador,” he says. “But for now, I also do taxidermista.”
Taxidermy. He specializes in bulls’ heads. He might have been a hero
The sun grows hotter. The sand in the ring is packed and hard. Manolo, who trains like any other athlete — “running, cycling, weight lifting” — might practice his technique on a day like this, but the training school on Montjuic has been closed for the Olympics. It is in the shadow of the main stadium, and the organizers said sorry, no access.
Manolo walks through the gates and out toward the Gran Via. No one recognizes him. A few blocks down, an entire office building is covered with the image of Michael Jordan. This is what it has come to in Spain: A bullfighter gets no attention. A kid from North Carolina gets his own building.
“When I go out with senoritas, I do not even say I am a matador. I wait until I know them better. Sometimes they laugh.
“But this is my love. And there is no fooling here. When you drive to work as a matador, you may never drive home. How many sports ask you to risk your life, every time?”
It is hot and bright and dusty, the kind of day Hemingway once wrote about. Across the city, they are swimming the breaststroke and punching a volleyball over a net.
The matador squints. In the old, bloody days, he might have been a hero. But today, he is just another Barcelonan without a ticket. He says he will go home now, to his apartment by the airport, and make himself something to eat.