The athlete who opened the doors to Europe



For many years Tomás Barris was considered the star figure of Spanish athletics.  This was at a time when resources for sport in the country were scarce, Spanish athletes had less international contacts and the rigorous dedication of today's athletes did not exist.


Reams have been written about him since his athletic debut in the Jean Bouin school meet on the 1st January 1947. After that, his athletics career went from strength to strength, despite the ups and downs he suffered in his first years on the competitive circuit, which, to some,  seemed to indicate a certain lack of moral fibre.


Tomás Barris' transformation into a world class athlete did not happen by chance. It was the fruit of his own willpower and determination and the work of his Finnish trainer Olli Virho who spent eight months in Barcelona preparing Catalan athletes for the 2nd Mediterranean Games, held in the old Montjuic Stadium in summer 1955.


Olli Virho's trip was organized by the City Hall of Barcelona and by Juan Antonio Samaranch who paid for the stay of the Finnish trainer. Olli Virho introduced the concept of controlled and intensive training into Spain. When he returned to Finland, he kept in touch with Barris, encouraging him to believe in his athleticism and helping build his confidence.


However, the trainer with the greatest international prestige at that time was to be found in the Institute of Physical Education at the University of Freiburg in Germany.  Woldemar Gerschler was then popularly known as The maker of world records and olympic champions, such as Rudolf Harbig, Josy Barthel and Gordon Pirie (from Luxembourg), the Belgian Roger Moens, etc. Gerschler worked with Doctor Hans Reindell, who had carried out studies on human stamina. The group was completed by the famous psychoanalyst Dr. Schilge. They achieved great results, but there were also many athletes who burned themselves out in Freiburg. Barris always knew how to intelligently adapt himself to the teachings he received.


The explosion onto the scene of Tomás Barris would never have happened without the help of Juan Antonio Samaranch, who always believed in him, offering him his personal help in carrying out so many trips to the beautiful capital of the Black Forest. Success was not long in coming.


From 1957, the track at the University of Madrid was the scene for encounters between Spain and Germany and was where Tomás Barris obtained the only Spanish victory, winning the 1500 metres in front of the former world record holder Werner Luegg. This achievement opened the doors for him to the most renowned stadiums of Germany and Scandinavia, considered the cradle of world athleticism.


He performed alongside the U.S. team and other world figures in his summer tours throughout Europe, beating world record holders and olympic champions along the way. He achieved enormous popularity and his name figured prominently in reports sent by Spanish ambassadors to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. In 1957, The National Sports Delegation awarded him the Baron Güell Cup recognizing him as the best Spanish athlete on an international level. Later, the Spanish government would award him the Cross of Merit and the International Athletics Organization (IAAF) would award him their Silver Medal for Sporting Merit.


Tomás Barris' tours of Europe would continue for many years, but they reached their height in the Finnish city of Turku, when the chronometer stopped at the end of a  memorable 1500 m. race at 3' 41·7'', the 13th best time of the year, world wide, and the 20th best of all time. It was a Spanish record, and at that time was an improvement on anything offered by athletes from countries with a long sporting tradition such as Germany, France, Norway, Italy, Romania, Belgium, Yugoslavia, etc. Only 12 countries in the world then had a better time recorded in their book of national records.


When we speak today of the important progress of Spanish athletes in achieving Olympic medals and winning  performances at world championships, we should not forget the precursor at the distance: Tomás Barris, who retired from competitive athletics without ever having known artificial tracks, having run in long spiked shoes on cinder tracks, who ran without the help of pace making athletes, without ADO grants, nor sponsorships, etc., and who had to work for his future living outside the sporting arena.


Tomás Barris represented a brilliant milestone in the history of Spanish sport, in an era in which international gymnastics also saw the star shine of Joaquín Blume. Making comparison between today and that period is not really advisable because circumstances have changed so radically. More than 40 years have passed since Tomás Barris triumphed in Turku, but he shall always be remembered as the man who opened the doors to Europe for Spanish athleticism at the highest level of competition.



 This profile was compiled with the collaboration of Francisco Castelló, a historian of Catalan athletics.