In Puerto Rican historiography, the field of sports has been relegated continuously to a second tier. Hence, the majority of the research on sports activities in Puerto Rico lacks a cohesive historical analysis that covers other aspects of the field beyond presenting information, statistics or important dates. However, as it will be shown further on, sports play a very important role in the formation and recognition of a popular identity; furthermore, as indicated by Mike Cronin and David Maya, editors of the book Sporting Nationalisms: Identity, Ethnicity, Immigration and Assimilation, “…it is a medium that in many ways build national identities: individual or collective”.
During the 20th century, it is precisely in the field of sports where Puerto Rico within the Caribbean has had an autonomous international sports relationship, as well as a degree of functional integration of the island in the region. Both Robert W. Anderson and Idsa E. Alegría, in their articles “The role of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean” and “Puerto Rico and the UNESCO: Past History and Perspectives”, respectively, conclude that the island participates in the Central American and Caribbean Games since its first edition held in Cuba in 1930 in its own right, channeling and affirming feelings of national pride through international and interregional athletic competitions. Ever since, Puerto Rico’s sports participation and integration to international sports organisms have increased with celerity. The creation of Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee and its presence at the 1948 Olympics celebrated in London, England evidence the former. All of the above mentioned facts have contributed one way or the other, to the entrenchment of a sports nationality defended among the popular sectors.
Continuing this line of thought, one can assert that sports are an active part of the cultural manifestation of a people that, in Puerto Rico’s case, has served as a channel of national affirmation for all its social sectors, independently of whether some have participated in sports competitions or have been mere spectators. According to Edward W. Said, “… culture has gotten ahead of politics, military history or economic problems.” In this sense, sports have become a community link, where identity and common experiences emerge, or simply, develop.
However, it is the work of Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, that better illustrates how identity is formed through sports. For Anderson, the nation is an imagined political community in which the field of sports fits perfectly because it doesn’t acquire nor seize territories, let alone seek directly to destroy an ideology; on the contrary, it supports the building of that nation, just as it was imagined.
From the former one can conclude that sports, unlike the political or intellectual elite, permeate all of the popular sectors that compose a society. In other words, the sports experience is accessible to everyone and plays an important role in the creation and recognition of a national identity. In his article Nosotros mismos: historia geocultural de la afirmación nacional puertorriqueña (We Ourselves: Geo-cultural history of the Puerto Rican national identity affirmation), Juan M. García Passalacqua presents the sports-nationality relationship in Puerto Rico as he points out that “…a fundamental element of this nation-community (with or without a pre-existing state) was the recognition of the arts and sports as essential elements of the national entity affirmation of the masses.”
Consequently, sports will be the means through which sometimes, diametrically opposite ideological, political, social and religious sectors concentrate; and as it is a form of cultural manifestation, it will also represent a source of identity and resistance of the nation it represents. In his book The Social Roles of Sports in the Caribbean Societies, Michael A. Malec already alerts the social and cultural impact of sports in the Caribbean Basin. He stresses the sense of unity that this activity has promoted among nations; and emphasizes the existing relationship between colonialism, nationalism and the role of sports as a channel of resistance to the elite, since the creativity of the popular culture allows a different conceptualization; to be excellent in sports is, at the same time, battle strategy and tactic. It is through sports that the masses participate in a public cultural activity where political power doesn’t threaten, but gathers the forces that establish nationality. Sports activities happen in a cultural space that does not meet directly with the colonizer, although it does acknowledge its nationality and faces the attacks of imperialism.
Certainly, sports have continually influenced the life of the island, having an impact on its social, economic and political sectors. Joseph Maguire’s analysis on Global Sports: Identity, Societies, Civilizations studies the incorporation of sports into the global arena and its influence on the elements of social status, interracial relationships, business, auto design, fashion, concept of hero, language and ethical values.” Also, sports comprise certain cultural patterns and a social structure, elements of which influence values, rules, knowledge, and social positions or roles.
As for Puerto Rico, the development of sports has unified all demographic segments of the island. Dr. Nelson Meléndez Brau’s study, entitled “Characteristics of sports participation in urban areas of Puerto Rico” (Características de la participación deportiva en el Puerto Rico Urbano), concludes that 35.5% of the Metro Area population practices some kind of sports.
Another interesting way in which sports pervades the social fabric is in the economic aspect. In this sense, our evolution has been extraordinary if one notes that in order to send the first Puerto Rican athletes to compete in international events and cover costs for the delegation; we had to raise money by approaching private companies and the general public.
During the 1940’s, Julio Enrique Monagas gave notice to Governor Tugwell of the unexpected profits obtained in the different sports events. Also, and although there are no studies in Puerto Rico that analyze the relationship between sports and economy, I found data at the Planning Board from the 1980’s that reveals the income generated by horseback riding and the personal consumption expenditures in equipment and sports shows totaled almost $170 million.
Actually, the above-mentioned report indicated that the expenses for these two items added up to $70.5 million and $98.8 million, respectively. And this sum did not include contributions given by both the public and private sectors of the island. To that effect, and as reference, it is worth mentioning that Sports Inc. magazine measured the economic impact of sports in the United States, under a system named Gross National Sports Product (GNSP), and profits for 1987 were estimated at $47.3 billion.
Neither does the political aspect escape the sports discussion. Frequently, we’ve been able to ascertain how diverse ideological sectors have interfered with sports issues. And although the aim is to assert or raise the flag of sports autonomy, it is no less true that political factions have defended or attacked it depending on their interests. Sociologist Jean Meynaud has studied in depth the relationship between politics and sports by identifying the factors that have provoked the intervention of the state on sports: first, to preserve public order; second, for the sanitary need to ameliorate the physical condition of the population; and last but not least, to assert national prestige. Regarding national prestige, it is obvious that many governments have tried to establish, in international sports competitions, dominant criteria that allows for positive judgment, or standards that confer value to their respective government. In most cases, the government intervenes to uphold national pride, promoting sports participation. Mrozek’s study, The Cult and Ritual of Toughness in Cold War Americans an example which examines how during World War II “…inside and outside the military service, millions of Americans had physical training experiences, and participated in sports that the federal government organized to raise the national quotient and physical aptitude, and cultivate spirited values to individual citizens.”
Many who participated in those programs, including well-known athletic coaches, were also the ones who, using moral and physical strength, raised the enthusiasm level during the post-war era (Cold War). Moreover, after 1950, the political war is transferred, to a great extent, to the sports arena, since the two super powers, (United States and former Soviet Union) programmed and developed a devoted cult to physical training to gain supporters and preserve super power status,.
With these facts, among others, we will look at the field of sports as a means of national identity affirmation, and its impact on Puerto Rico’s culture- the main objective of this investigative essay.
Puerto Rico and its first Central American and Caribbean Games
After the Games’ first edition, where only three countries participated – Cuba, Guatemala and Mexico – the total of participating countries tripled for its second edition (held in La Habana, Cuba from March 15 to April 5, 1930). Such celebration had a very special meaning for Puerto Rico since it marked the introduction of the island to the Central American sports stage along with Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Jamaica, which were added to the trio of pioneer nations. At the same time, these regional competitions became very significant because female athletes were incorporated into the program for the first time.
Puerto Rico’s athletics delegation was comprised of Eugenio Guerra, Andrés Rosado, Manuel Luciano Gómez, and Juan Juarbe Juarbe, who won the event; Manuel
Angel Rodríguez and Jorge Juliá Pasareli made up our tennis delegation; in the meantime, the shooting team was composed of representatives of the 65th Infantry Regiment. In this first edition, Puerto Rico got three silver medals: two for athletics and one for shooting.
Interestingly, the initiative to participate in the Games came from the U.S. government. At the beginning of 1929, Alicia Patterson, U.S. Ambassador to Cuba at the time, formally invited Puerto Rico to participate in the sports event. Formalities were carried out via the Governor of Puerto Rico, Theodore Roosevelt, who immediately instructed the recently created Athletic Commission, directed by Eduardo González, to guarantee Puerto Rico’s participation. But since we lacked the necessary funds needed to send the delegation to La Habana, and the island’s economic situation was difficult, González, using El Mundo newspaper as a channel of distribution, launched a civic campaign. Very soon, a list of potential donors interested in helping our athletes was created. Among them were Miguel Such, Pedro Juan Serrallés, the González and Roosevelt families. During the first months of the campaign, a total of $1,500 was collected.
A meaningful case involved the national symbols used by the Puerto Rico delegation. The first flag bearer, Juan Juarbe Juarbe, marched with the U.S. flag (this athlete would later become one of the main leaders of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party), and the Star Spangled Banner played as our winner’s national anthem during the awards ceremony. Thus, the “national symbols” of this first delegation were the ones that corresponded to Puerto Rico as a colony of the United States. The same happened to Jamaica, as a colony of Great Britain.
The experience of competing at an international level, plus the three silver medals we took, generated a kind of sports euphoria in Puerto Rico, highlighting the need to create a permanent organization and allocate public funds accordingly. So, in 1934 the Public Sports and Recreation Committee was established, and the transfer of funds, previously assigned to an Olympic Committee that was never instituted, was approved. In addition, a commission was established to select and register athletes for the third edition of the Central American Games, which due to a natural disaster were held behind schedule in El Salvador from March 16 to April 5, 1935.
Puerto Rico’s drive to the 3rd edition of the Central American and Caribbean Games
The third edition of the Central American Games, officially called the Central American and Caribbean Games since then, represented sports-wise a confrontation between the two nations with the greatest athletic power in the region: Mexico and Cuba.
But to our surprise, the track and field team of Puerto Rico won four gold medals. To great extent, these results not only followed to the effort of counting with extraordinary representation and getting the necessary funding to cover their expenses. These were also authentic proof of the genuine interest to position Puerto Rico in the international and regional sports stage, and as a distinct national entity. The organization of our overseas sports representation and the development of competitive parameters to select Puerto Rican athletes were shaping a new international experience.
A whole series of preliminary tryouts emerged as a result of these strict rules, which in March 5, 1933 allowed for the selection of the track and field team that would represent us in the 1935 Games held in El Salvador, along with the archery and basketball teams. More than 2,000 people came together to attend these events in San Juan.
Ultimately, the Insular Olympic Board (comprised of Eduardo R. González, Justo Rivera Cabrera, Frank Campos and Teófilo Maldonado) selected a team of 38 athletes for the track and field program, which included José Martínez, Eulalio Villodas, Eugenio Guerra, Frank Cespero, Juan Luyanda, José Oliver Sabater, Manuel Luciano, Fernando Torres Collac, Antonio Figueroa, Raúl Torres, Gilberto González, Eligio Armstrong, Raúl Juliá, Francisco Gelpí, Roberto Martínez, Sebastián Barea, Ramón Cestero, Rafael Martínez and Hermán Cestero.
Reports of the time demonstrate that the departure of these athletes “could only be compared to the prevailing hustle-and-bustle heard in the farewell gatherings of college or high-school scenes we see in movies, when a football team says its goodbyes or returns from scoring a big victory”.
In terms of budget, this trip was made possible with the funds raised by the so-called Comisión de los Tres (the Trio Commission), which consisted of Teófilo Maldonado, Eduardo R. González and Frank Campos, with the continual collaboration of Rafael Arcelay, Tito Cabrera, Julio E. Monagas (who later became an important sports figure in Puerto Rico), E. Rodríguez Tizol and Aníbal Garcia. It is also worth mentioning the athletes’ trainers, who not only included Frank Campos but also a group of skilled instructors popularly known as Fabito, Gordian, Beitia, Chiqui and Thompson, among others.
However, beyond the support provided by the private sector for these activities, the public sector’s lack of action was more and more evident, a factor that undermined the hope of participating in future international sports events. Therefore, after many bureaucratic meetings and led by Teófilo Maldonado , a proposed bill previously presented by Senator Celestino Iriarte (Bill Number S. 286 as of April 1935) reappears on the legislative floor, which disposes the necessary funds so that Puerto Rican athletes could be sent to the 1938 Central American Games, and the amount of $7,500 per year is assigned. Finally, the Senate approved the bill and its President, Rafael Martínez Nadal, openly voiced his strong commitment to sports in the Island.
As predicted, the third edition of the Games celebrated in El Salvador provided the background to an extraordinary performance by the Puerto Rican delegation, winning a total of 14 medals. Hence, Puerto Rico won the bronze, defeated only by México and Cuba, which won the gold and silver medals, respectively.
However, the Puerto Rican team’s prominent participation was not exempt to anecdotes regarding our national identity. It happened that Fernando Torres Collac won the first gold medal at an international level for shooting. But since this victory was not expected- not even by the Games’ Director of Protocol- there was no U.S. anthem or flag available for the awards ceremony. The improvised solution was offered by Cosme Beitia, who provided a small Puerto Rican flag he had brought with him; as for the anthem, it was agreed that El Salvador’s anthem would be played, as many times as a Puerto Rican won a medal. Understandably, the dilemma created by this situation was very meaningful not only for the athletes but also to the Puerto Rican people, and would unearth an extensive list of incidents.
Like Torres Collac, many others won gold medals for Puerto Rico: Juan Luyanda for long jump; José Sabater for pole-vaulting; and Antonio Figueroa for javelin throw. Silver medals were secured by Gilberto González Juliá for 400-meter hurdles; Eulalio Villodas, Eugenio Guerra, Frank Cespero and Gilberto González Juliá for 4 x 10 meters relay; Gilberto González Juliá for pentathlon; and José Martínez for long jump and masculine volleyball. Bronze medals were earned by Raúl Torres and Raúl Juliá for the 110 meter hurdles; Raúl Juliá for long jump; Pedro Maldonado, Jesús Acosta, Hermenegildo Pérez, Generoso Santiago and Julio Torres for archery; and last but not least, Gilberto González Juliá, Frank Cespero, Raúl Torres and Eulalio Villodas for 4 x 400 meters relay and masculine basketball.
As recorded, the medals won at El Salvador and the events surrounding the national symbols, triggered an unparalleled fervor towards sports among islanders (especially international competitions) and provoked strong expressions of national pride that transcended our borders. The Salvadorian press highlighted the extraordinary participation of Puerto Rico in the third edition of the Games, and did not hesitate to refer to Puerto Rico’s political status:
“Cuba is more fortunate, being now a Republic, while Puerto Rico continues to be dominated by the Treaty of Paris, without being a (sovereign) state of the Union nor an independent Republic. But in the Central American Games, Puerto Rico has acted indeed as a nation. In the world of sports, we have witnessed in San Salvador the birth of a new nation: Puerto Rico.”
The local press also made a lot of noise, giving accolades to the victory of our delegation but bemoaning the absence of our anthem in the awards ceremony, as well as the lack of commitment on behalf of our government to allocate funds to cover the expenses of our delegation. Others took advantage of the situation to bring up the Hispanic-American condition of the Puerto Rican – the reason used by the Olympic Committee to invite Puerto Rico to partake in the Games in spite of its political status , and to praise our athletes as heroes:
“They return as the Alida hero, triumphant in all disciplines. Their performance in El Salvador will have spiritual traditions that will prove fruitful in due course.”
Regardless of the circumstances and the social or political sector to which the Puerto Ricans belonged, the reception of our athletes was a memorable spectacle. In an article published in El Mundo newspaper, the moment was described using the following words: “How sublime was that sight! Someday, sports historians will narrate such memorable act filled with profuse exclamations…” As a matter of fact, the highest officials of the island welcomed our delegation, hundreds of Puerto Rican flags were raised, and the great Rafael Hernández composed a picaresque ballad titled ¿Cómo te cae? (How does it feel?). In addition, the music bands of PRERA, the 65th Infantry Regiment and the Children’s Home played during this welcoming event.
At the same time, Senate leader Martínez Nadal, in a happy moment during his speech, stated: “The hero athlete of the big games doesn’t last very long: we must prepare new talent for future competitions…” , clearly stating the support the Government of Puerto Rico needed to provide.
In conclusion, Puerto Rico’s triumph in the Third Central American and Caribbean Games had an enormous impact, at least in its initial development as a nation in the sports arena, an identity which was also acknowledged by our fellow Central American and Caribbean countries.
1938: Puerto Rico, the number one athletic power
Puerto Rico’s outstanding performance in the third edition of the Central American and Caribbean Games clearly demonstrated the great potential of our athletes in this type of competition. Therefore, since 1938, the field of sports takes an honored seat in Puerto Rico and specialized organizations begin to establish and proliferate, such as the Insular Federation of Basketball (FIB, according to its Spanish acronym), the precursor of the current Basketball Federation. Consequently, and to intensify the energy, the Puerto Rican delegation achieved its best performance in an international competition during the fourth edition of the Central American and Caribbean Games held in Panama from February 5 to 14, 1938. Afterward, and due to World War II, these competitions were unavoidably put on hold for eight years.
Celestino Iriarte greatly supported and contributed economically to Puerto Rico’s delegation for the Panama Games, which was composed of 133 athletes – 114 male and 19 female (following much public debate).
Then again, this participation was backed strongly by many manifestations of solidarity. In fact, the acting President of the Sports Commission, Teófilo Maldonado, appealed to the people of Puerto Rico to raise funds for the athletes. Cockpit owners said: “we’re in!”, agreeing with the Commission to lend their facilities, on the 6th of February 1938, to raise funds. Maldonado’s call even reached students in the public and private school systems, who donated one cent per individual to support our athletes in Panama. The efforts went far and beyond successfully, expanding to the industrial, agricultural and commercial sectors, which had stayed on the sidelines of the issue. The result? A total of $4,600 were raised, collected by a community which prided itself in its delegation.
The extent of our delegation’s athletic performance was simply unparalleled. Puerto Rico’s athletes won 37 medals (16 gold medals, 11 silver medals and 10 bronze medals) to crown themselves champions of the IV Central American and Caribbean Games. Without a doubt, this victory intensified the enthusiasm of our fellow countrymen. Outstanding performances by our male athletes included winning gold medals for 4 x 10 meters relay by Eugenio Guerra, Eulalio Villodas, Gaspar Vasquez and Ruben Malaves; for 110-meters hurdles by Horacio Quiñones ; for shooting by Antulio Pietri ; for long and high jump by Juan Luyanda; in the triple jump by Juan Rafael Palmer; in the pentathlon by Salvador Torros ; for discus throwing by Ian Murphy ; and for javelin throw by José Antonio Figueroa . In the female competition, Rebekah Colberg was the superlative athlete of our delegation.
Once again, the media praised our delegation’s amazing performance, and columnist Arturo Gigante pointed out that: “…our athletes arrived at the Central American and Caribbean Games filled with faith and enthusiasm, trusting that they would give Puerto Rico a good name, as was the case in past competitions…”. In another article written by the same columnist, he depicted the actions and emotions of our athletes:
“That’s Puerto Rico! That’s Puerto Rico incarnated in Figueroa, embracing and kissing the floor as he breaks the Olympic record by 1 centimeter, and in Luyanda, stretching his strength to the limit to beat Bell, from Cuba, in the triple jump, by barely another centimeter! That’s Puerto Rico absent, flooding itself in the hearts of its people, which against all odds have succeeded in giving a first-class name to Puerto Rico, admired and respected by all the nations that, creating a big heart on the map, are the core of Hispanic republics, the backbone and essence of our race”.
This elation was joined by the headlines in El Mundo newspaper, anticipating “…an excitingly poignant reception of the athletes. As soon as they land, a huge victory parade will take place in their honor”.
Puerto Rico and the fifth edition of the Central American Games in 1946
Beyond the recent and rising institutional fame of the Central American and Caribbean Games, many obstacles had to be overcome by the Board of Delegates that organized the fifth edition. First, Costa Rica, chosen as the next host city, had to resign its post due to the harsh economic conditions of the country at the time. And Colombia, first runner-up, accepted the challenge but couldn’t realize its objectives in 1942.
Understandably, the world was facing a great threat. World War II had exploded in 1939, and therefore, all kinds of sports events of Olympic nature were canceled, including the Central American and Caribbean Games. It wasn’t until 1946 when the fifth edition of the Games was finally celebrated. Puerto Rico requested to be the host city of the Games, but nonetheless they were celebrated from December 8 to the 28th in Barranquilla, Colombia.
As demonstrated, the war did not terrorize the spirit of sports and so an attendance record was established, with 1540 athletes and 13 participating countries. Puerto Rico participated with its largest international delegation thus far, comprised of 187 athletes (135 male and 52 female). However, the Island won less medals in this edition than in the glorious previous games (1938).
Still, at this juncture, it is worth mentioning that various institutional processes took place in Puerto Rico during the world war, and many of them had a favorable impact in sports development. For example, Law # 40 was amended in 1943 to revise the faculties of the Sports Commission to allow the intervention of the Amateur Sports Commission (its reach had been limited until then to professional sports, boxing in particular).
At the time, Julio Enrique Monagas was appointed by Governor Tugwell to direct the Puerto Rico Administration of Public Parks and Recreation, an entity which strongly fostered the field of sports in Puerto Rico. The Parks Administration, as it was commonly known, was responsible for organizing and supervising local sports and its related organizations. And it was Monagas (vital in the development of Puerto Rican sports activities, in addition to the solid support provided by Luis Muñoz Marín) the one who gathered the athletes for the next international competition.
In Barranquillas, the Puerto Rican delegation won 24 medals (9 gold medals, 8 silver medals and 7 bronze medals). José Vicente won a gold medal for pole vaulting; Francisco Castro for triple jump ; Manuel Seine for discos throwing; and Nestor Marchany for pentathlon. But we lost the Olympic championship to Cuba, with a score of 105-87 , and Puerto Rico took second place. Then again, boxing changed our luck: the Island won three gold medals. Juan Venegas took featherweight gold; Orlando Reverón light heavyweight; and Evaristo Reyes heavyweight. In female softball, our rookie team won the gold. George C. Johnson also won gold in shooting, whereas Cuba took the gold from us in masculine volleyball.
Contrasting exaltation of previous events, the limited participation of Puerto Rican athletes in these Games gave way to many critics from athletes and sports columnists. Elmo Torres Perez, in his article titled Athletics published in El Mundo newspaper, wrote about the overwhelming defeat of the athletic team and indicated that “…this absolutely calls for immediate action – as soon as possible – to reinstate Puerto Rico’s athletic supremacy in the next Olympics if Puerto Rico is to be represented in the Guatemala Games.”
In turn, Gilberto González Juliá, captain of the Puerto Rico Athletic Olympic Team, ascribed the delegation’s poor performance in Barranquilla during its fifth edition to various factors: poor publicity given to the athletes; lack of sports training facilities; poor nutrition; and the need for a technical team to train track and field athletes, which existed in Puerto Rico but was assigned to carry out other unrelated tasks.
At the same time, Eugenio Guerra, trainer and manager of this much-criticized delegation, said that “… the inspiration provided by the Puerto Rican anthem or the flag of our people was missing”. And he wasn’t far from the truth, since many fans humiliated the Puerto Rican athletes in full competition. Regarding the former, when Francisco Castro won the gold medal in the triple jump, fans would shout “champion of a colony”; and many spectators would remain seated or would whistle in an isolated manner to the melody of The Star Spangled Banner.
The establishment of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee
Since 1946, Monagas and his working group charged themselves with the task of utilizing official resources to organize an Olympic Committee in Puerto Rico, and formally established the coveted International Olympic Committee (IOC). It entailed a lot of hard work, not only because of Puerto Rico’s status quo, but also due to the difficulties exhibited by internal and external groups with opposing preferences, challenging every attempt of local participation in the international stage. Both Monagas, as sub-director of the Commission (and a national shooting champion), and Miguel Angel Barasorda were very interested in making Puerto Rico’s debut in the international Olympic scene. Ramón Muñiz Hernandez’s book London 1948: the true history of the first Puerto Rican Olympians recalled that a letter written by Monagas was mailed on July 16, 1947, addressed to J.S. Edstrom, then the IOC President, where he emphasized Puerto Rico’s interest in participating during the fourteenth edition of the Olympic Games to be held in London in 1948.
Among other reliable arguments delineated by Monagas (which would allow local participation) figured the presence of the Island in international events, such as the Central American Games and the creation of a National Olympic Committee. It is noteworthy that this Committee was composed mainly of Puerto Rico government officials, like Governor Jesus T. Piñero (who would later become President), Julio Enrique Monagas (Vice-president), Roberto Sánchez Vilella (Secretary of the Department of Public Works), Rafael Buscaglia (Treasurer of the University of Puerto Rico.), Alberto Guerrero (Shooting Director), and Jorge J. Jimenez (Commissioner of the Interior).
The much-awaited response arrived on the 25th of September of 1947, when Otto Mayer, Secretary of the IOC, specified that to participate in the Games, a National Olympic Committee had to be in place, which it was. Nonetheless, Mayer clarified that said Committee had to be comprised of representatives of national sports associations, which in its stead, had to be members of the International Sports Federation. As a result, Monagas pulled all the necessary strings for the former to happen, although he knew sports in Puerto Rico were controlled by the government and by himself as its representative.
For a moment, Monagas got his way, because on February 14, 1948, he received a later from Mayer endorsing the existence of the National Olympic Committee by the IOC, informing him that the official invitation was on its way and that the participation of Puerto Rico seemed like a sure thing. However, uncertainty, political conflicts, and the challenge of the National Olympic Committee greatly jeopardized Puerto Rico’s participation. One day before receiving Mayer’s letter, El Mundo newspaper declared in a headline that “Puerto Rico is not eligible to compete in the Olympics” , presenting reports that contradicted the arguments in favor of eligibility. The article in question stated that:
“These reports denied others disseminated in this city during the last few days, in which they downright declared that Puerto Rico is eligible to compete in the Olympics. Reports distributed through other local means of communication indicated that the President of the International Olympic Committee, J. Sigfred Edstrom, had announced on behalf of the Committee the official recognition of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee.”
According to this piece of news, the United Press (Prensa Unida) had communicated with the officials of the IOC in London and St. Moritz (Switzerland), who declared they had no knowledge of an approval allowing Puerto Rico to participate in the Olympics as an independent country, separate from the United States. Dan Ferris, secretary and treasurer of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States was one of the persons articulating doubt regarding Puerto Rico’s participation. Ferris considered Puerto Rico maintained the same position as Hawaii, since its athletes would compete as part of the U.S. team; if an exception were to be made, other territories could request the same privilege. Monagas kept an impenetrable silence about the controversy…
Problems persisted. After the Senate and House of Representatives approved a resolution allocating $10,000 to the National Olympic delegation, the U.S. – appointed governor of Puerto Rico, Jesús T. Piñero vetoed the project as he was greatly influenced by Avery Brundage, U.S. Olympic delegate opposed to Puerto Rico’s participation in the Games.
Harsh criticism to Governor Piñero followed with no delay and one of his first detractors was Rafael Pont Flores, Editor of El Mundo’s Sports section. Considered one of our most brilliant sports writers and fervent advocates of Puerto Rico’s development and Olympic participation, Pont Flores, in his column titled “Sports: Joking and Serious”, categorically attacked Piñero, raising public opinion against him:
“When you decided to veto the bill that assigned ten thousand dollars to cover the expenses of our Olympic delegation in the London Games, you knew, or at least suspected it to be the same, the angry wave of protests that would surface and be ridden by our people. At the same time, we imagined you were absolutely aware that such an act would be unpleasant, and that it would not be played down with friendliness. Let us tell you how we feel. In chronological order, our reaction went from surprise to disappointment to anger.”
In a very short time, Governor Piñero changed his opinion and allocated an amount of money to pay for the expenses of our Olympic athletes. In this fashion, on Thurday March 25, 1948, another article of El Mundo newspaper highlighted that Governor Piñero had approved, the day before, Puerto Rico’s participation in the World Olympics, to be held in London from July 20 to August 14, 1948. It also explained our participation would incorporate track and field, boxing and shooting and emphasized with enthusiasm that Juan Evangelista Venegas, national featherweight amateur champion, would be joining the delegation in the London Games.
To select the athletes that would participate in the Olympics, Monagas revealed he would seek advice from Eugenio Guerra and Frank Campos in track and field; from the directors of the Golden Gloves Association for amateur boxing; and from the local shooting director Alberto Guerrero for shooting. In turn, the IOC required that Puerto Rico, in addition to creating a National Olympic Committee, become part of international organizations, thus, Monagas and his working group wasted no time and affiliated the Island to the International Federations of Boxing, Athletics, and Shooting.
On February 1948, the IOC had accepted Puerto Rico as one of its members, and as such passed on the news to the Parks and Recreation Commission. At the end of that month, Monagas received a letter from London letting him know that a formal invitation was sent to Puerto Rico through the U.S. Embassy in London. Nevertheless, this positive environment had a negative counterpart, for certain spheres discussed which flag and which anthem would represent our delegation, among other things.
Puerto Rico was going through a period of extreme political tensions, such as the persecution of nationalists (who had embraced the flag as a national symbol) and the electoral campaign of Luis Muñoz Marin, who was in the process of becoming the first Governor of Puerto Rico to be elected by the people. Eventually, sports leaders and Muñoz Marin introduced the discussion of the Olympic symbols and chose not to use our flag but the crest given by Spain (with the name of Puerto Rico written in red, in a white background and with the crest in the center). Monagas had to accept it to manage the participation of our representation in London. In this aspect, it is noteworthy that it was not until the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, that the U.S. flag ceased to represent Puerto Rico and the single-starred Puerto Rican flag was proudly raised. On July 25 of that same year (six days after the inauguration of the Games), the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was born, and the Puerto Rican flag, the one used by nationalists during their manifestations, became its official symbol.
Returning to the sports arena, it is worth mentioning that our pole-vaulters, José Fofo Vicente and José Celso Barbosa qualified for the elimination games in London. But it was boxer Juan Evangelista Venegas who won four fights (first bronze medal for Puerto Rico) and whose representation positioned us in thirty-seventh place among sixty countries.
We managed to participate in the Olympics with a lot of hard work and overcoming great limitations imposed by the U.S. Years later, Monagas would describe our 1948 circumstances with great accuracy: “… when we went to London, Puerto Rico still hadn’t freed itself from the colonial features that prevailed in its political relationships and government. There, we had to enter the stadium, accompanied by the representation of the other nations, with a white banner that displayed the symbolic lamb; nevertheless, we were already enjoying an unspoken recognition of our personality as a people, since we were granted the right to have our own representation, to participate as a nation”.
Our participation in Guatemala (1950)
The saga of our participation as a national entity had yet another chapter before 1952. It took place in Guatemala, during the sixth edition of the Central American and Caribbean Games between February 25 and March 12, 1950.
Again, this encounter represented a glorious moment for the Puerto Rican delegation which consisted of 74 competitors: 73 male and 1 female. Our athletes were classified as “the Finns of the Caribbean” by the specialized press as it they took the gold in athletics.
Everything was going as planned, until an incident directly related to our delegation caused great confusion and animosity among the audience: when the Puerto Rican delegation marched into the stadium during the opening ceremony, instead of playing the U.S. national anthem (The Star Spangled Banner), La Borinqueña was heard to the sound of a Guatemalan band. And the situation became worse when Fernando Torres Collac, the flag bearer of the Puerto Rican delegation, carried the U.S. flag. Monagas turned to the band director inquiring why was La Borinqueña played; and the musician, taken aback by his inquiry, told him he was instructed to do so. Monagas also confronted José Martínez Ceballos, technical director of the Games, but he got another surprised look from him. After a formal protest, Monagas had to make sure that the U.S. national anthem and flag were present in all Puerto Rico’s victories during the rest of the Games, as was agreed among all the delegates the day before the inaugural ceremony given that no appropriate consent had been reached as to playing La Borinqueña as a national anthem instead of as a danza (native music genre). As a result, Monagas was flabbergasted when the U.S. national anthem was not played in the opening ceremony…
n addition, as we all know, the Puerto Rican flag, La Borinqueña (the revolutionary anthem of the Cry of Lares, written by poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió) and the song Puerto Rican Lament (Lamento Borincano) were considered subversive in those days in view of their claim to justice and freedom. The case of Guatemala, egged on by the announcements of the loudspeakers in the stadium (Guatemala against American colonialism) encouraged a great distaste among Pro-Americans in attendance, understanding that the situation promoted Puerto Rican nationalism, in this case, through sports.
Undeniably, the historical account of this work provides evidence that the Puerto Rican nationality has had and continues to have a special significance in our sports stage. Latin American and Caribbean nations recognized Puerto Rico’s participation in international sports and perceived it as a bona fide nation regarding sports and culture, in spite of knowing about the colonial relationship with the United States. Since 1930 and regardless of the lack of official national symbols, our athletes have demonstrated their ability to represent with dignity a people who were claiming their space within the nations of the region.
Gradually, Puerto Rico’s participation in international sports caused it to be part of the Caribbean sports culture, and transformed this athletic exhibition into a non-violent medium, a very effective one by the way, to oppose colonialism. Simultaneously, an imprint of pride has been left on our people to defend the colors of our land.
Referring to Puerto Rico as a nation in political terms has always generated bitter conflicts and arguments among the diverse ideological parties of the Island. However, in the field of sports, the circumstances are very different. Our delegations have traveled the entire world as ambassadors of a nation within nations, and they continue to do so, as they receive the sincere and growing support of the Island’s social sectors.
Author: Félix Rey Huertas González
Published: September 28, 2010.
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