Puerto Rico at the Olympics: How a US Territory Won Its Athletic Independence

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It’s Olympics time again, which means there will inevitably be a lot people scratching their heads over the presence of Puerto Rico’s national team at the global sporting event. “How could an island territory with a complex colonial relationship to the United States be considered a nation?” the thinking goes. Or something like that, at least. And indeed, the confusion is entirely forgivable given the ongoing ambiguity surrounding the island’s political identity.

So how exactly does all this work considering that according to Article 30, Section 1 of the Olympic Charter a country is defined as “an independent State recognized by the international community”? Well, the short answer is that the Olympics doesn’t actually give too much importance to a country’s political identity. In fact, this year’s inclusion of an all-refugee team marching under the International Olympic Committee (IOC) flag blew open an unresolved debate about whether the Olympics is inherently a competition between nations or athletes.

To boot, Puerto Rico is only one of several politically complex entities that are recognized by the IOC – including Palestine, Hong Kong, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands – with a total of 11 participating nations that aren’t recognized as sovereign states by the United Nations. In the case of the Virgin Islands, we find a pretty clearcut example of the required steps a territory must take to be recognized as a nation by the IOC. According to the Virgin Islands Olympic Committee website, the US territory first had to prove that its athletes were “active and competitive” in five international sports federations before beginning to compete in the regional Olympics affiliates like The Pan-American Games in 1966.

Puerto Rico marches at the 1948 Olympics Games in London
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In Puerto Rico, the creation of a National Olympic Committee in 1948 was a fraught and drawn-out process intimately bound up with the island’s political tug-of-war. The 2016 book “The Sovereign Colony” by Antonio Sotomayor details how politicians on the island used the development of a national sports culture to curry favor from local voters, while others viewed it as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of statehood.

In the end, however, it was the desire to modernize Puerto Rican society in accordance with Olympic ideals that ultimately triumphed over political division, and the National Olympic Committee’s petition was accepted without much fuss by the IOC. Yet, as Sotomayor makes clear, the participation of Puerto Rico in international sporting events was not so much a patriotic project as a means for the island’s elite to showcase the achievements of the US colonial possession.

Whatever the original intention, Puerto Rico’s Olympic project has been relatively successful over the last seven decades, with eight total medals across boxing, wrestling, and athleticism. But without a doubt, the moment that etched Puerto Rico’s athletes into the international sports consciousness was at the 2004 Games in Athens, when the island’s basketball players delivered a resounding upset defeat over the US “Dream Team”.

Puerto Rican wrestler and Olympic silver medalist Jaime Espinal
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With a final score of 92-73, Puerto Rico’s scrappy squad led by Carlos Arroyo trounced the “Dream Team” by the widest-ever margin in Olympic history – and the defeat stands to this day as one of only three in the history of the US’ legendary team. It was an ironic inversion of colonial power dynamics for a nation whose very existence is questioned at every turn; but more importantly, it stands as a powerful symbol of Puerto Rico’s resilience in the face of a seemingly unending history of colonial domination.