Why does Puerto Rico have an Olympic team?

When the American Samoa Olympic Team marched into Olympic Stadium at the start of the London games a few days ago—fifth in line behind Greece, Afghanistan, Albania, and Algeria—the Twitterverse erupted in disbelief. Those not commenting on team’s Polynesian garb seemed genuinely shocked that American Samoa was actually a real place. Most of the American Samoa-related Tweets I noticed inevitably mentioned Girl Scout Cookies in some way. One viewer asked whether “American Thin Mint” would be the next team to enter the stadium.

Last night, when NBC aired Puerto Rican athlete Javier Culson’s bronze medal performance in the 400 Meter Hurdles, reactions from American viewers familiar with the island’s status as a US Territory ranged from confused to apoplectic. Some asked how Puerto Rico could compete if not an actual country. A few accused Puerto Rico of disloyalty and demanded that we start taxing the territory. Others simply asked whether Puerto Rico’s medals could be counted as US medals in the event of a tie with China.

My own realization that Puerto Rico fielded its own Olympic Team came during the 2004 Athens Games, when their men’s basketball team downed the United States in a humiliating 92-73 drubbing. It was only the third time that the US Team had lost an Olympic match dating back to Berlin in 1936, and the most lopsided defeat of any US Olympic basketball squad.

It was certainly a far cry from the United States’ dominating performance in the 1992 Barcelona Games, the first year that the International Basketball Federation allowed professional players to compete. That US squad—the original “Dream Team”—was stacked with legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and David Robinson. The 1992 team slayed its opponents by an average of almost 44 points en route to the Gold. In the final match, Croatia came the closest to defeating the Dream Team, managing to put 85 points on the board and only losing by 32.

For me, the shock of Athens wasn’t that the US team actually lost an Olympic match. The defeat had been looming for years, as the United States began to lose in international tournaments and barely scraped by in exhibition games.

Instead, like the people watching Javier Culson in 2012, I was left wondering why Puerto Rico had an Olympic team separate from that of the United States. That Puerto Rico  decisively beat us at our own game was just background noise.

But the fact of the matter is that the US Olympic Committee endorsed Puerto Rico fielding its own team decades ago, and the International Olympic Committee—the governing body responsible for organizing the Games—has every legal right to allow teams from sub-national entities to participate.

A common misperception is that the Olympics is actually a tournament that pits countries against one another. In fact, the Olympic Movement is about competition between athletes; the notion that the Games are a competition between countries is mostly a concept invented by the countries themselves. The IOC’s efforts to prevent the media from keeping medal tallies—and thereby quashing the notion that the Olympics were a stage for countries to battle one another for sports supremacy—were futile from the beginning.

Some people probably get tripped up by the IOC’s own definitions. According to Article 30, Section 1 of the Olympic Charter, the term “country” means “an independent State recognized by the international community.” Yet, oddly enough, Puerto Rico doesn’t meet any of the criteria of an independent country. What’s more, the other three US Territories represented in London—Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands—are still classified by the United Nation’s as Non-Self Governing Territories, or, dependent geographical entities that still retain some sort of colonial relationship with a mother country.

But the Olympic Charter almost exclusively refers to “nations” rather than “countries,” which any Political Science major knows are not the same thing. It just so happens that organizing athletes’ participation in the games is probably easier if farmed out to National Olympic Committees.

As for how sub-state entities gain IOC recognition, some clues are found on the US Virgin Islands’ Olympic Committee (VIOC) website.

According to the VIOC, the Virgin Islands had to first convince at least five international sports federations (the governing bodies that oversee international events for individual sports, such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA) that their sports were active in the Virgin Islands and that athletes from the territory could be competitive on a regional level, such as in the Pan-American Games.

The Virgin Islands was able to demonstrate that six sports were active in the territory—Track & Field, Yachting, Weightlifting, Basketball, Fencing, and Volleyball—and was granted permission to participate on a trial basis in the 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games in San Juan. After “an intense lobbying effort,” the Virgin Islands made their Olympics debut in 1968 in Mexico City. Presumably the US Olympic Committee had to sign off on this as well, as it did with Puerto Rico in 1948.

All told, the IOC recognizes 204 National Olympic Committees, 11 more than the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations as sovereign states. Some of these National Olympic Committees include:

  • Palestine
  • Taiwan, which participates as Chinese Taipei (one Twitter user suggested the name “American San Juan” for the Puerto Rican team)
  • Hong Kong, which competes separately from China, per the terms of the agreement transferring Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the UK to China
  • Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, and Cayman Islands, all British Overseas Territories
  • Aruba, a Caribbean territory and one of four constituent countries of the Netherlands
  • Cook Islands, a self-governing free associated state with New Zealand, which retains responsibility for external affairs and defense

You’ll also recall that several independent countries participated as one grouping at the 1992 Summer and Winter Olympics under the name “Unified Team.” That team, comprised of Russia and several former Soviet Republic, took in the largest medal haul in the Barcelona Games.

So while most of the above mentioned participants are not anywhere close to being recognized as independent States by the United Nations, they are treated as such by several international sport federations, which appears good enough for the IOC.

Sadly, one National Olympic Committee unlikely to be recognized by the IOC—let alone the US Olympic Committee—is the one organized by residents of the District of Columbia.

According to their Wikipedia page, the Committee has only gathered athletes to compete in two sports—curling and racewalking—surely the low hanging fruit of any entity aspiring to be recognized by the IOC.

Air rifle and skeet shooting would seem like probably candidates as well, but the District’s notoriously strict gun laws would at least force aspiring athletes to train in nearby Virginia or Maryland, anathema to any true DC patriot.

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