If you question that national identity is fluid, then you need to look closely at the Olympics. Had I – as an Honduran American – excelled at any sport like I do at FIFA, picking between my native country and the one my parents are from would pose a challenge. In my completely hypothetical scenario, it’d be about choosing between two places that equally represent who I am. But many US-born athletes with deep ties to other parts of the world are faced with this choice.
For some Latinos, it’s about representing their family’s homeland. But for others it’s about strategically selecting the place that gives them a better chance at Olympic glory. Each country has a limited number of spots per sport, and the United States fosters intense competition. For these athletes, switching teams can mean the difference between getting on an Olympic team and just missing the cutoff. Or it can be about representing a better team. Certainly if Miguel Ángel Ponce chose to play for the US’ soccer team, he wouldn’t be a gold medal winning Olympian today.
And just because someone starts their international career with one country, it doesn’t mean they’re locked in forever. At 19, Karl-Anthony Towns – who’s not going to the Olympics this year – presents an interesting case. The New Jersey-born basketball player has the talent to be a future star for USA basketball. He technically still holds the possibility of switching to play for the US, but as of now, he represents his mother’s Dominican Republic and seems excited to continue doing so again in the future.
This year, Brazil will get a boost from foreign-born athletes who have connections to the South American country. As the host team, it’s afforded automatic slots in some sports. But due to a shortage in athletes, Brazil looked outside its own borders to fill out its 465-deep roster. According to the Washington Post, this gave people with Brazilian parents and grandparents the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, but it also led to drama about who could rightfully call themselves Brazilian.
Then, there’s also Latin American-born athletes who have made the US their home and can’t imagine competing under another banner. When you really dig and look at what countries people end up representing, you’ll find that things are more nuanced than what a birth certificate claims. For that reason, we’ve put together a list of athletes with ties to Latin America, and where they’ll be when the Games kick off on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro:
Carmelo Anthony (Team USA)
Because of his father, Carmelo Anthony has deep ties to Puerto Rico. In 2015, he even bought a soccer team on the Caribbean island. And while PR is solid at basketball and is one of the few teams to beat the US at its own game, it’s not nearly on the same level as Team USA.
Carmelo’s a star in the NBA, but at the international level, he really morphs into that dude. FIBA’s’ shorter three-point line and the ability to play power forward while surrounded with much better teammates unlocks his full potential on the court. While his friends from the 2003 draft class, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, might be getting too old for this, there is no way Carmelo is passing up a legitimate chance to win gold. He’ll be making his fourth trip to the Olympics and chasing his third gold medal.
Dorian McMenemy (Team DR)
Photo by Stuart Cahill
Dorian McMenemy will swim at the Olympics for the second time, despite being only 19 years old. McMenemy, who hopes to improve on her 2012 place when she finished 41st in the 100 meter butterfly, represents the Dominican Republic. In 2012, she was the only woman on the Dominican team.
“My mom is Dominican,” she said. “We used to go down to visit family all the time when I was growing up.”
Angelica Delgado (Team USA)
Angelica Delgado competes in the 114-pound weight division, but she can definitely kick your ass, please believe that. The judoka is following in the footsteps of her father, Miguel Delgado, who competed in the Olympics with Cuba’s national judo team, according to NBCOlympics.com. She told the US Judo Federation that she sees a sports psychologist three times a week, which should help her handle her first Olympics.
Danell Leyva (Team USA)
Danell Leyva’s inclusion on the 2016 USA Men’s Gymnastics team must have been bittersweet. After a strong showing at the 2012 games when he won a bronze medal in the All-Around, Leyva suffered a gnarly dog-related injury (for the second time) and didn’t perform well enough in qualifying to merit a spot on the team. However, the selection committee chose him as a reserve, which means that he’s filling in for the injured John Orozco.
But even though he’s moved away from his native Cuba, he remains close to his culture, which will make his time in Rio easier. “Rio is a beautiful place,” he told Team USA. “It’s amazing. When we went for the camp in January, I really felt like it was my people. I was born in a [Latin American] country, and just being around [Latin American] people like that is awesome. To be able to be back in a situation like that is going to be amazing.”
Diana Taurasi (Team USA)
Born in the United States to an Argentine mother and an Italian father who grew up in Argentina, Diana Taurasi grew up a bicultural Latina. She and her sisters spoke Spanish at home, and she credits her upbringing with helping her adjust to different culture. But she’s spent her international career on Team USA. Taurasi has a crazy resume that easily makes her one of the best female basketball players of all time. She’s won everything, at every level, in multiple countries. At 34, she’s shooting for her fourth Olympic gold medal, and (spoiler alert) she’s definitely going to win it.
Manuel Huerta (Team PR)
Manuel Huerta has now qualified for the Olympics with two different countries. The Cuban-born triathlete represented Team USA in London, but now competes under the Puerto Rican banner. In 2013, El Nuevo Dia reported that the switch came about because Huerta had been living on the island since 2011 and had a high comfort level with the island due to its similarities with his homeland.
Isadora Cerullo (Team Brazil)
Brazil’s representation at the Olympics will include about 20 international athletes with ties that allow them to represent the South American nation, according to the Washington Post. Among them will be US-born Isadora Cerullo, who answered the call when Brazil decided to field a team in the sport. She had never visited the country before joining the national team, but she’s fully embraced her role as an ambassador for the sport in Brazil.
Steven López (Team USA)
Steven Lopez of the U.S. reacts after winning a bronze medal by defeating Venezuelas Javier Medina in the mens taekwondo under-80kg category at the Pan Am Games in Mississauga, Ontario, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Steven López, simply put, is el mero mero of Taekwondo. According to the NBC Olympics site, López’s parents hail from Nicaragua and immigrated to New York, where Lopez was born. He won gold in 2000 and 2004, and picked up a bronze in 2008. He’s also won six gold medals at World Championships. The last of those medals came in 2009, but he’d like to make his way onto that Olympic podium one last time, and with his pedigree it’s hard to doubt him.
He told Efe that his parents journey inspired his career. “My parents emigrated from Nicaragua in the early 70s,” he said.”They came from a small country with many dreams and didn’t speak English. But they knew this country would offer them many opportunities.”
His brother and sister have also competed in previous Olympics, so don’t fuck with these nicoyas.
Anita Alvarez (Team USA)
Finally, an Anita Alvarez we can be proud of. The 19-year-old synchronized swimmer takes after her Mexican-American mother who also participated in the sport, according to Latina Style. This year, she’ll make her first appearance at the Olympics.
If you’re not that familiar with synchro, here’s an example of a routine from Anita and her partner, Mariya Koroleva. That strut, tho.
Tony Azevedo (Team USA)
The 2016 Olympics won’t be a homecoming for the Rio-born Tony Azevedo. Though he grew up in California, Azevedo has played for a water polo team in his native country for the last two years. Actually, the only reason SESI Water Polo in São Paolo exists is because of the Olympics. So Azevedo has spent his time reconnecting with his culture. “I can’t tell you how many cousins and family members that I have that I didn’t know existed,” Azevedo told USA Today. “Having my son there and having him have the opportunity to grow up his first two years in Brazil speaking a little bit of Portuguese is also something that’s hard to explain with words.”
But he’s also a US citizen, and he serves as the captain of the United States Water Polo team. It won’t be his first Olympics, as Azevedo won silver in 2008 after losing in the finals to traditional water polo power Hungary. He failed to medal in 2012, so a win this year would be extra sweet.
Ryan Lochte (Team USA)
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 20: Ryan Lochte delivers Pizzeria Pretzel Combos to fans at Midtown Ferry Terminal on August 20, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)
The less said by Ryan Lochte, the better. (Ex: Jeah.) But he can swim fast and look at those eyes. In all seriousness, the half-Cuban has become one of the most decorated swimmers of all time – all on a diet of bistec empanizado. “One of my favorite Latino foods that my grandma or my mom make is breaded steak with some black beans and rice,” he told Latina. “I could eat that pretty much any day. Whenever they see me, they make it for me, because they know it’s my favorite food.”
He earned his first Olympic gold in 2004 and has racked up 11 Olympic medals and 89 international medals overall. Think about how ridiculous that is. My dude is chasing 100 medals! (Go Gators)
Nataly Arias (Team Colombia)
EDMONTON, AB – JUNE 22: Nataly Arias #14 of Colombia controls the ball against Abby Wambach #20 of the United States in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015 Round of 16 match at Commonwealth Stadium on June 22, 2015 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 528451983
Colombia has qualified for the women’s soccer tournament at the Olympics for the second straight time, after having never qualified before 2012. Virginia-born Nataly Arias made the team in 2012 and has done so again for Rio. The road is tough for Las Cafeteras as they face two superpowers, the United States and France, in the group stages.
In a 2014 interview with El Tiempo, Arias explained that she ended up on the Colombian team after Ricardo Rozo invited her to try out in 2010. “The team was in Bogota preparing for the Copa America, and it was the only opportunity where the coaching staff could evaluate if I had a chance and ability to compete for a spot on the team. Thank God after 10 days they invited me to the next phase as one of the players and for the first time I wore Colombia’s colors and the rest is history. I’ve celebrated four years with the Selección Colombia and Ive worn the gorgeous jersey 34 times in competition.”
She has a day job as a human resources manager and her co-workers are understandably excited.
Yvette Lewis (Team Panama)
Yvette Lewis represented the United States for many years, even winning a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American games. Before she retires, however, she’s going to take a shot at the Olympics representing Panama, her mother’s nation. “It’s pretty major for me, because I’ll be representing Panama and my family,” she told the Daily Press.
David Torrence (Team Peru)
As far as choosing a nation to represent at the international level, David Torrence certainly had options. Born in Japan to a Peruvian mother, he originally ran for the United States. But in 2015, Peru approached him to make the switch, and he did it just in time to compete in Rio. Torrence made the decision to change teams because of the opportunity to inspire young people in a country that doesn’t have as many running figures to look up to as the United States, he told LetsRun.com.
“I kind of realized that whether or not I make the US team, the American public as a whole is going to have heroes to look up to,” he said. “Whereas in Peru, they only have a handful of athletes. I think there’s 12 track athletes now, maybe under 20 in total across all sports… I really hope to have a much greater impact on that population, on those people, on those kids and I can hopefully change the running culture out there a little bit and also kind of introduce the idea of professional track because it’s really not well-known, the sport. Yeah, they have good marathoners, good 10k runners but mid-distance and opportunities for people that are over 25 is very foreign for them. I just feel like I’m much more impactful as Peruvian athlete than as an American athlete, basically.”