Puerto Rico’s Olympic Team: How Important Is It?

Puerto Rico’s basketball team has lost to Lithuania in the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, disqualifying it from Olympic consideration this year.

Puerto Rico has fielded an Olympic team since 1948, when, according to the Wall Street Journal, “the International Olympic Committee was in the market for members” following the upheaval of World War II. Puerto Rico is one of thirteen “entities” with Olympic teams. The practice of allowing “entities” to field teams ended in 1996 — the Disctrict of Columbia will never have a team. However, Puerto Rico (along with Guam and eleven others) were grandfathered in.

In 2004, Puerto Rico astonished the international community by trouncing the U.S. basketball team in Athens, but the only Olympic medals Puerto Rico has ever taken home have been in boxing.  In fact, the only Puerto Rican gold medalist in history is Gigi Fernández, who played tennis for the United States.  Puerto Rican athletes have the option to play on the U.S. team, of course, because they are citizens of the United States.

The Olympics has been a political issue in Puerto Rico. Opponents of Statehood for Puerto Rico have pointed out that Puerto Rico could no longer have its own Olympics team if it became a state of the U.S.

But is the U.S. Olympic team such a bad place to be?  Gigi Fernández experienced great success as a member of that team, much to the delight of tennis fans throughout the country, including – but not limited to – Puerto Rico.  Texans, Californians, and New Yorkers feel proud of the athletes from their states, just as the rest of the home states of Olympic athletes do — and just as Puerto Rico would if the Puerto Rican and U.S. teams were combined.

Puerto Ricans have reason to feel proud of Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar, and Chi Chi Rodriguez as American athletes. Some Puerto Rican Olympic team members are born on the mainland.  Colleges and universities throughout the U.S. boast many Puerto Rican athletes on their teams.  On the sports field – and in many other aspects of life and federal policy – there is often not such a clear division between Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States.

Posters showing weeping Puerto Rican athletes have been used in previous plebiscites to suggest that Puerto Rico’s Olympics team is important to Puerto Rico emotionally in a way that the U.S. Olympics team could not be. Yet some Puerto Rican athletes have already played for the U.S. team with great success, just as they have played for major league baseball and other professional and collegiate U.S. teams.

Is it time to combine the Puerto Rican team with the U.S. team? It is possible that by the time the next Olympics games take place, Puerto Rico will be the 51st state or an independent sovereign nation and the discussion will be moot. If not, it may be time to consider whether Puerto Rico might want to join the U.S. — at least for the Olympics.

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