BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - After more than a decade in the NBA, Pau Gasol knows better than most that it is what you do in the final stretch that makes the difference between winning and losing.
Now the Spaniard is applying the same lessons he has learnt on the basketball court to the high-stakes world of Olympic diplomacy in his role as an official spokesman for Madrid’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Games.
For the past year, the Spanish capital has been widely regarded as the outsider in a three-horse race with Tokyo and Istanbul but, with the vote now two days away, the race has suddenly tightened up.
“We come here with great enthusiasm, as a bid team,” Gasol told a packed news conference on Thursday.
“We have made every effort and will make every effort so that Madrid will be the chosen candidate on Saturday.”
This is the third time in a row Madrid has bid for the Olympics. The city finished third in the ballot for the 2012 Games, which were awarded to London, then second to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 vote.
“We have learnt a lot and that has made our bid a lot stronger,” Gasol said.
“We are sound enough and mature enough. We have grown up, so to speak, and I think this may be decisive on Saturday.”
Just as he is when on the court with the Los Angeles Lakers or the Spanish national team, Gasol was an imposing figure when he addressed the media in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.
Looking relaxed in a navy blue jacket and open neck shirt, the 7ft Gasol towered over Alejandro Blanco, the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, when he was introduced at a plush hotel in the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo.
Gasol gave a cheery thumbs up to the hordes of television cameras and photographers focused on him, triggering a flurry of shutter clicks, then provided a candid account of his own Olympic experiences.
Gasol made his first appearance at the 2004 Athens Games, where Argentina surprisingly won gold in the men’s basketball competition, then returned for 2008 and 2012, winning silver medals both times. In London last year, he was selected as the Spanish flag bearer for the opening ceremony.
“The feelings you have as a sportsman participating at the Olympics are unique and incomparable,” said Gasol, a four-time All-Star center and twice NBA champion.
“Even when you play big games, it’s something that no person wants to miss, we all want to be there.
“It’s a source of pride and a privilege. Participating in the Olympics means everything to me, it’s the case with many other sports people.”
Madrid’s late resurgence has almost as much to do with increasing concerns about the other candidate cities as its own credentials.
While the Madrid team have relentlessly downplayed the impact of Spain’s economic woes and high unemployment, Istanbul and Tokyo are encountering their own problems at the worst possible time.
Uncertainties about Istanbul’s bid have increased because of the escalating war in neighboring Syria and a series of doping scandals while Tokyo’s bid has been hurt by the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, even though Japanese officials have insisted the radiation leaks pose no danger to the Olympics.
In the NBA, Gasol is always under pressure, whether he is up against the likes of LeBron James or standing on the free-throw trying to sink a crucial basket with thousands of spectators screaming from the stands and millions watching on television.
But on Saturday, the 33-year-old faces one of the biggest moments of his life, when he will be on stage as part of Madrid’s final presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members before they cast their votes.
“When our moment of reckoning comes, I’m sure the nerves will be there,” Gasol said. “Normally I’m not affected by them and hopefully I won’t be this time.
“Our object is to convey to the IOC members that we are very willing, enthusiastic and the qualities we have make sense to have the Olympics in Madrid.”
Editing by Ken Ferris