The defeat of the U.S. Olympic basketball team by the Puerto Rican team was cause for great jubilation in Puerto Rico. The loss by a lopsided score of 92-73 was declared “historic” by the press because the U.S. has lost only three times in all the Olympic Games and this was its first loss since adding professional players in 1992.
Why such a celebration? It doesn’t necessarily mean a medal for Puerto Rico. In reality, it means much more. Despite being a colony of the U.S., the victory said, “We are a nation.” It became a source of national pride, even for those who do not aspire to independence for Puerto Rico, which the U.S. took over from Spain as a prize during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
In Puerto Rico the right-wing leaders who want this island nation to be annexed as a state by the U.S. define Puerto Ricans as an ethnic group within the American nation. An overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans has rejected this position. The annexationists work to destroy anything that smacks of a separate nation, from changing the school menus from Puerto Rican cuisine to American, to changing the official names of municipalities into English. Behaving as a nation in sports is no different.
In Puerto Rico “sports independence” doesn’t only mean not having either the government or the political establishment of your own country interfering with athletics, it also means having one’s own national sporting life free and separate from the colonizing country — the United States.
Puerto Rico organized its own Olympic Committee in 1948, but it wasn’t fully recognized by the International Olympic Committee until 1958. The Olympic Committee of Puerto Rico (COPR) has demonstrated a strong sense of independence from U.S. pressures and control. The COPR participated in the 1980 games held in Moscow, despite a U.S. boycott of the games.
Recently a legislative committee in Puerto Rico proposed that the University of Puerto Rico’s sports programs disaffiliate from the National Collegiate Athletic Association because of rule changes that would prohibit Puerto Rican college students from playing in Puerto Rican sports leagues.
For Puerto Ricans, participating in international athletic events is an affirmation of their own nationality, as much as when the Puerto Rican sports authorities (or literary, educational, and economic agencies) protest U.S. State Department denials of visas to Cubans to prevent them from taking part in Puerto Rican activities.
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