CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation. Nevertheless, its athletes compete in the Olympic Games and other international athletic events under the flag of Puerto Rico, rather than as part of a U.S. delegation.
Olympic participation helps give Puerto Ricans a sense of national identity, said Antonio Sotomayor, a librarian for the University of Illinois International and Areas Studies Library and a professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of recreation, sport and tourism.
Sotomayor wrote “The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico,” published in February. The book is the first study of the Olympic Games and colonialism, he said. “It’s the story of people who do not have political sovereignty, yet they somehow manage to get Olympic sovereignty.”
Sotomayor, a native of Puerto Rico, studies how and why certain sports arrived in Puerto Rico, and in Latin America and the Caribbean more generally.
“Sports is a very interesting window to observe the development of the modern 20th century,” he said.
Puerto Rico was claimed by Spain after Christopher Columbus encountered it in 1493. It was ceded to the U.S. in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, and today it is a territory of the U.S.
Sotomayor said several factors played a role in Puerto Rico gaining Olympic status. First, there was the interest of its residents, who are generally sports fans, he said. And there was a growing sense of national identity in the early 20th century.
In 1930, Puerto Rico sent athletes to the Central American and Caribbean Games in Cuba, at a time when the U.S. was seeking better relations with Latin America.
“They thought that an athletic event would be unthreatening enough to send a delegation to,” Sotomayor said.
The Puerto Rican athletes represented the U.S. at the games, carrying the U.S. flag.
Avery Brundage, who served as president of the International Olympic Committee and was a force behind the Pan-American Games, was a key figure in granting Olympic status to Puerto Rico, which first participated in the Olympic Games in 1948 in London.
“I think he saw in Puerto Rico an Olympic nation that would embody the best of the Olympic movement and of the West, and as a bridge between advanced countries and developing countries,” Sotomayor said. “It was easy for him to support Puerto Rico. But at the same time, there were risks.”
The risks came in the form of reaction from other Latin American countries that disapproved of U.S. policies in the region, Sotomayor said. Puerto Rico’s participation in the Olympics – especially in the first few games in which it carried the U.S. flag – threw it into the political mix of foreign relations.
“Sports is never done in a vacuum,” he said.
Puerto Rico, Sotomayor said, “is an example to understand other places around the globe that have subordinated states.”
He noted that Catalonia – designated a nationality within Spain, but not a separate nation – has not been granted Olympic status. Taiwan competes under the name of Chinese Taipei. And Scotland, while fielding a national soccer team, competes in the Olympics with the United Kingdom delegation.
While there is a pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico, the residents of the island have repeatedly decided against full independence. However, a feeling of autonomy is important to them, Sotomayor said.
They have U.S. citizenship and carry U.S. passports but identify themselves as Puerto Ricans, not Americans. Puerto Ricans and Americans are politically tied, but are two different peoples, Sotomayor said.
“Other than the political connections and a high economic dependence on the U.S., it’s another Latin American nation,” he said. “For Puerto Rico overall, the Olympic movement is a celebration that it can play along with its Central American brothers and sisters.”
Sotomayor said the U. of I. Library is a “gold mine for Olympic research,” with its archive of papers donated by Avery Brundage, a U. of I. alumnus.
Sotomayor will speak about his book this summer at an international symposium on Olympic research in Brazil, scheduled for one week before the start of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, and at the Manuel Fajardo Higher Institute of Physical Culture in Havana. Future research projects for Sotomayor include looking at Latin American participation in the Winter Olympics, and at the influence of the U.S., the public education system and the YMCA on the rise of baseball and other American sports in Puerto Rico and Cuba.