Segment from After Hurricane Maria

Independence Through Sport?

Puerto Rico may be a territory of the United States, but on the international sports field they are anything but. Brian sits down with historian Antonio Sotomayor to talk about how sports sovereignty allows Puerto Rico to compete under its own flag, while also continuing the colonial relationship with the U.S.


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Brian Balogh: Now I want to turn your attention to the 2004 Summer Olympics held in Athens, Greece. The U.S. Men’s Basketball Team had just steamrolled through the competition in the qualifying rounds, and they were stacked with talent.

Nathan Connolly: Just like our BackStory team, baby.

Brian Balogh: Exactly like that, Nathan. The Dream Team, as it was called, boasted a star-studded roster of NBA players. They were far and away the favorites to win gold at the Olympics. They were well on their way. That is until they faced the might of plucky Puerto Rico.

Male: South Florida Sun Sentinel, August 18th, 2004. Puerto Rico stunned the United States 92 to 73 in the opening game of the Olympic Men’s Basketball Tournament. The loss was a huge blow to whatever basketball ego Uncle Sam has left. People knew the world was catching up to the United States. Now one of its own territories has zoomed past.

Antonio S.: We organized a party at the graduate apartments.

Brian Balogh: This is scholar and librarian Antonio Sotomayor.

Antonio S.: Everybody brought food from their countries, and we were playing, and then the games started. A lot of attention of course. The Mexicans were rooting with us for Puerto Rico. We were there, and all of a sudden, basket and basket and steal and they were missing and we were making the shots and we were up by 20-something points at the end of the half.

Brian Balogh: Oh my goodness.

Antonio S.: It was crazy. There was a lot of jumping, screaming. There was hugging. There was some crying, pulling hairs. It was just a unbelievable scene. At the end of the game we were extremely tired, exhausted of the energy, but exhilarated at the same time.

Ed Ayers: Wow, that’s inspiring stuff. It almost makes me want to lace up my old basketball shoes and get back out on the court.

Brian Balogh: That’s a lot of laces, Ed, because as I recall, you were still wearing high-tops. At any rate-

Ed Ayers: That’s true.

Brian Balogh: … I wouldn’t advise it. These were highly trained athletes representing their countries on the world stage.

Nathan Connolly: Now wait a minute, I just want to get this straight. Now Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S, could compete against the United States?

Brian Balogh: I don’t blame you for being confused, Nathan, but you’re correct. It’s all down to this thing called sports sovereignty. It dates back to 1948 when Puerto Rico was first invited to participate in the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. The invitation was part of a larger effort to express anticolonial sentiment and expand the Olympic movement. Puerto Rico has competed internationally as an independent nation ever since, but before 1948, that wasn’t yet the case.

Antonio S.: Early on in the 1930s when they started participating in the Central American Caribbean games, the delegation was composed of Spanish Caribbean peoples, with a history of a plantation society, with a history of the Spanish empire economy, mainly Catholic society. They brought those things to these events, but they did it back in the 1930s holding the U.S. flag, not the Puerto Rican flag. Technically the delegation was a United States delegation at the Central American Caribbean Games, where the U.S. officially doesn’t play, because they’re not in the Caribbean, but they did have that possession, that territory, and they send it to these games as a way to be present. Puerto Rico’s first incursion into the Olympic movement was not necessarily out of a intrinsic motivation, like, “We need to participate. We have to get there.” No, there are multiple instances where Puerto Ricans themselves didn’t want to participate and wanted to participate with the U.s.

Brian Balogh: You know that the Olympic stage is a very big one. Are there any examples of Puerto Ricans using that stage to enhance political agendas.

Antonio S.: The best example is the 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games held in San Juan. At that time, 1966, you had in Puerto Rico around, the sources vary, 18,000, 20,000, 26,000 Cuban exiles living in Puerto Rico, very tied close to the political leadership and who were putting pressure to the organizers of the games to not invite the Cubans, because of course for them Cubans were war dictators. Castro was a dictator. It was a dictatorship.

Antonio S.: You bring let’s say 200 Cuban athletes, which back then were claimed to be an export of the Cuban Revolution and the athletic soldiers of the revolution. The Puerto Rican leadership, the political leadership, didn’t ask for the visas for the Cuban government. They said, “We are not going to invite the Cuban delegation to these games. Now the problem is that according to the IOC’s rules, you have to invite every delegation in the region for these games, for these regional games. Otherwise you are in risk of losing the right to host those games, because then you’re not following the principles of Olympism. Everybody should get together and celebrate these things.

Antonio S.: It was a very tense few months where the Cubans were attacking both the Puerto Rican government and the U.S. government of mixing politics and sport. Everybody was calling everybody for mixing politics and sport. What happened then at the end is that the U.S. says, “Okay, we’re gonna issue the visas,” because Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., and if we don’t allow those visas, then the IOC can then say, “No, you are going against the Olympics rules, U.S, so you are not allowed to host anymore Olympic Games.” Right there, even though Puerto Rico had Olympic sovereignty and supposedly an autonomous government, the U.S. imposed the permission and the visas to the Cubans to go to the island.

Brian Balogh: It sounds like their one hand is shaped as a fist and the other is a handshake. It sounds like one step forward, two steps back, in terms of real independence.

Antonio S.: It’s [inaudible 00:49:56]. It’s not a delegation that is trying to seek independence through sport. It’s not a delegation that is saying, “Hey, we are here, we want independence.” It’s a delegation that is saying, “We are here, we exist as a nation, we are proud of being Puerto Ricans, and we do it being U.S. citizens, by being U.S. citizens and by having all the benefits of being within the U.S. political system.”

Brian Balogh: When you step back and look at that strategy, Antonio, would you say that’s been successful?

Antonio S.: It depends on what you consider success. In terms of reproducing the structures of consent to a subordinated political relation or colonialism, it is successful. Puerto Rico’s Olympic delegation allows for the reproduction, allows for the fueling, the nurturing of a national identity. By doing so as U.S. citizens, by doing so without the need of having an independent republic, you allow for that escape valve of that nationalistic sentiment and then continue with the political relation, whatever it is. It’s been successful in those regards. I say it is successful in helping to maintain a colonial relation.

Brian Balogh: Antonio Sotomayor is the author of The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico.

Ed Ayers: That’s gonna do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at or send an email to We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at BackStory Radio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Nathan Connolly: Special thanks to our voice actors this week, James Scales, Juan [Malanati 00:52:41], Ed Julio [Ana 00:52:42], and Carl Iglesias as Puerto Rican commissioner Jose Lorenzo Pesquera.

Ed Ayers: Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Male: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew [Windham 00:53:30] for Virginia Humanities.