There is a dark side to using sports to help create a national and cultural identity. Scholar Antonio Sotomayor said Puerto Rico is a case in point.
The Olympic movement has recognized Puerto Rico as a sovereign entity since 1948, he said. That is not true politically among the nations.
Sotomayor spoke at Illinois State University for LatinX heritage month. He is the author of "The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico,” which talks about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the Olympic movement and how their representation in sports conflicts with their political identity.
“The Olympic movement was a place to foster diplomacy,” Sotomayor said. “Nationalists, who advocated for independence and not really autonomy, used those events to do different types of activism. In 1935, they held the Puerto Rican flag instead of the US flag and it was a big diplomatic problem in San Salvador.”
Sport became a representation for autonomous government for Puerto Rico. And Sotomayor said presents an unproblematized view of the status of the island.
“It helped to justify and channel those feelings and wanting Puerto Ricans to express their nationhood in a safe way. So they adopted the flag so that Puerto Ricans can say 'Look, we are here. We are a nation'. We exist at the Olympic movement. We don't need independence because we have this Olympic movement.”
The debate between Puerto Ricans who favor statehood and those who favor independence is complicated by the central position of sports in the culture.
"It's a road block for statehood. It provides the fulfillment of national joy and pride without independence. And therefore it might be ok for many to have it under the commonwealth," said Sotomayor.
In June 2017, the statehood movement held its fifth referendum to vote on making Puerto Rico a state of the U.S. 23% of Puerto Ricans voted and 97% of them voted for statehood. Sotomayor thinks that the olympic movements efforts effects those in favor of statehood.
“It is a brick wall for those who are in favor of statehood because it is so entrenched in Puerto Rican culture and not necessarily politics,” Sotomayor said. “The sense of being is to be able to have an Olympic representation and national delegation at the Olympic games, the biggest cultural festival in the world.”
Puerto Rico’s notable achievements in the Olympics include boxing medals and Monica Puig’s Olympic gold medal in tennis, who beat Germany's Angelique Kerber in the women's singles tournament at the 2016 Rio's Summer Olympics. It was Puerto Rico’s first gold medal after only received eight Olympic medals since 1948.
Sotomayor also talked about the Puerto Rico men’s basketball team upset the USA basketball “dream team” which included notable players like Lebron James, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson. Not winning gold that year was the least of Puerto Rico’s concerns in the Olympics.
“For Puerto Rico, at that time, that was even better than winning gold because of the meaning behind it,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor said sport can also be used to obscure corruption and ineffective institutions.
"The commonwealth has some deep political problems. It creates more dependence. You clearly saw that during Hurricane Maria. There was a lack of appropriate response by different sectors, not only in Washington, but in Puerto Rico," said Sotomayor.
“We saw only three governers in one week in Puerto Rico. We have a collapsed state. It’s a politically and economically bankrupt fragile state. They’re thinking about ways to move forward with self-sustaining economy. We don't know. The only thing I know for certain, to me, is in terms of sports, that is still very powerful. It still moves to the core the Puerto Rican identity.”
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