“[The] Youth Olympic Games is still a part of that miracle that Puerto Rico participates, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Flag bearer Charles Flaherty of Puerto Rico and teammates arrive at the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Getty Images
In October of 2018, Dr. Antonio Sotomayor was in front of a screen watching the Opening Ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. Though 206 teams and nearly 4,000 athletes were expected, he intently looked for a 22-athlete delegation from an island the size of Delaware.
Sotomayor yearns for confirmation that his homeland, Puerto Rico, is at the international sporting event.
“The presence is just amazing,” Sotomayor said. “I will think, ‘There’s the flag. They did it again.’
“This Youth Olympic Games is still a part of that miracle that Puerto Rico participates, and I don’t take it for granted.”
The duality of his perspective provides him a unique vantage point to address the complexity of why Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, fields its own team at the Olympics and imminent Youth Olympics.
Sotomayor was born, raised and initially educated in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city. After graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, about two hours west of San Juan, he earned a masters in counseling at Indiana University and a masters in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In 2012, Sotomayor earned his PhD in history from the University of Chicago. In 2016, he penned a book titled, The Sovereign Colony, which delves into the role the Olympic movement played in Puerto Rico’s construction of national identity and development of an autonomist political culture.
“Growing up in the '80s and '90s, even though there was high unemployment, there was still federal aid (from the U.S.); everything still had the appearance of working, that things were OK,” Sotomayor says of the United States relationship with Puerto Rico during his childhood. “Even if you weren’t politically active, you saw it every day.
“But then there was a total economic breakdown and Hurricane Maria; the problems are more evident than ever,” Sotomayor adds. “We went back 100 years, so it’s very, very prescient.”
Closing ceremonies of the 1948 Olympics in London, where Puerto Rico first participated in the Olympic Games. Getty Images
Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in November 1493, during his second voyage, and one of his lieutenants founded the first Spanish settlement there in 1508.
By the 19th century, Puerto Ricans consistently started to push for independence, and the U.S. invaded the country in July 1898. Spain ultimately ceded control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the U.S., under the Treaty of Paris.
By 1917, the U.S. Congress passed what was popularized as the Jones Act, which granted Puerto Ricans born on or after April 25 1898, U.S. citizenship. Immediately, however, Puerto Rico was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 1918, and the Great Depression and hurricanes ravaged the economy and infrastructure of the island.
The U.S. allowed Puerto Rico to elect its own governor in 1947 and officially made it a commonwealth in 1952. The relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is complicated: Puerto Rico has two official languages, Spanish and English, its currency is the U.S. dollar, it is subject to jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts, and its people are U.S. citizens, although their votes do not count in Presidential and Congressional elections.
The International Olympic Committee has exclusive authority on approving all National Olympic Committees, and it’s Olympic Charter defines a country as an “independent State recognized by the international community.” Although it isn’t considered an independent country by world governments, Puerto Rico has been deemed a country by the IOC since 1948.
But the 1948 London Olympics was a turbulent one.
There were 14 countries represented at the inaugural Olympics in 1896 and the number steadily increased thereafter. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there were 49 countries. But World War II caused the next two cycles to be missed (1940 was originally scheduled to be in Tokyo and 1944 in London). The 1948 London Olympics were nicknamed the “Austerity Games,” given the adverse economic climate. Japan and Germany were not invited to participate, the Soviet Union decided not to send any of its athletes and no new venues were built for the Games.
The IOC permitted 14 first-time National Olympic Committees to participate in London, including Pakistan, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, Philippines and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Puerto Rico, among others.
Since then, Puerto Rico has competed in every Summer Olympics and all but three Winter Olympics.
"Puerto Ricans value the sovereignty that we have in terms of sport," Manuel Natal, a member of Puerto Rico's House of Representatives, told National Public Radio in March 2017. "It's something that's part of our national identity.”
Puerto Rico has won nine Olympic medals, but tennis star Monica Puig, pictured above, was the first to win gold. Getty Images
But Puerto Rico actually made its international sporting debut at the 1930 Central American Games in Cuba. Without a flag or a national symbol, Puerto Rico carried the U.S. flag at the Opening Ceremony. Then, in 1935, Puerto Rico won its first gold medal but, with no national anthem, had the host nation El Salvador’s anthem play in its place.
At the 1948 London Olympics, boxer Juan Venegas won Puerto Rico’s first medal, a bronze. He returned home a hero.
Gigi Fernández was born in San Juan, and she represented Puerto Rico at the 1979 Pan Am Games. Just 15 years old, Fernández won a bronze medal. Then, in 1982 at the Central American-Caribbean Games in Cuba, she teamed up with Marilda Juliá to win doubles gold and won a silver medal in singles. Fernández also represented Puerto Rico at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
But before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Fernández made a controversial decision. A 17-time Grand Slam doubles champion, Fernández picked her country based on her partner, selecting Mary Joe Fernández (no relation) of the United States instead of unheralded Puerto Rican Emile Viqueira. Fernández was a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, while Viqueira wasn’t ranked among the top 240 doubles players in the world.
“I wanted to win a gold medal,” Gigi Fernández told the UPI in August 1992. “People might realize this was the only way I could win a medal. But they still preferred I play for Puerto Rico.”
The American team did just that, winning in 1992 and repeating in 1996 at the Atlanta Games.
When Puerto Rico’s Olympic Museum opened, there wasn’t a single memento or mention of Puerto Rican Gigi Fernández winning a gold medal for the U.S., according to a May 2008 Wall Street Journal story.
But at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Puerto Ricans finally heard their national anthem, “La Borinqueña” — in fitting fashion. Monica Puig, who was unseeded, plowed her way to the Olympic final, where she upset second-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Puig wrapped herself in a Puerto Rican flag and cried.
She wasn’t the only one.
“Talk about metaphors: She overcame and beat the best in the world,” Sotomayor says. “It provided an injection of hope.”
Puerto Rico has won nine Olympic medals, but Puig’s was the first gold.
Sotomayor says sports is both entertainment and source of pride.
“Puerto Ricans, like many countries, don’t really have a chance to win that many medals,” Sotomayor says. “For small countries, just being present — to wave the flag at the Opening Ceremonies — is important. Then, ‘Who knows? Maybe we have a chance.’ And that expectation unites people.”
Though most of the attention is paid to the Olympics, Sotomayor notes that Puerto Rico earns far more hardware at the Pan American Games and Central American and Caribbean American Games.
Janessa Fonseca Romero represented Puerto Rico in karate, which made its debut at the Youth Olympics Games. Romero, who has won medals at other international competitions, cannot imagine competing for the U.S.
“I was born here, and this is the land where I grew up,” Romero says of Puerto Rico. “I feel pretty proud of representing Puerto Rico because we’re so small, and I can see that we can do big things.”
Romero wanted to uplift Puerto Rico because it was still reeling from Hurricane Maria, one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes in over a decade. The storm made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, with winds gusting at 155 miles per hour. Within a week, the storm had knocked out power to 95 percent of the island. Hurricane Maria dissipated by Oct. 2, 2017, but its devastation still impacts daily life in Puerto Rico.
The death toll reportedly is nearly 3,000 people, and the storm damage is projected at $90 billion.
Sotomayor returned to Puerto Rico over the summer of 2018, and he noted that he lost power twice in five days.
“That’s just the new norm,” he said. “The system is broken, and they’re fixing it with bandages. It’s heartbreaking, and you feel extremely impotent because the structural problem is so big.”
Sotomayor sends money to his parents, as well as supplies such as batteries. But he eagerly awaited the start of the Youth Olympic Games, where he looked for Puerto Rico’s flag and delegation. Though hopeful, he still had some concerns, given the tenuous relations between Puerto Rico and the United States.
Sotomayor says it’s hard to read news about Puerto Rico, but he is optimistic success at the Youth Olympic Games will uplift millions.
“Winning gold and having your flag at the top and have the National Anthem played?” Sotomayor says. “It’s a source of enormous pride only people from another smaller nation could understand.”