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Commonwealth Gives Puerto Rico A Sports Identity

By Gabrielle Paese

JULY 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Had NBC been broadcasting from the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the Commonwealth's first big international moment would have gone out as a highlight on "Later with Bob Costas."

As it was, Puerto Rico's brand-new flag was raised at a world forum for the first time and went largely unnoticed by the rest of the athletes at the Olympics. Still, it was historic and a final solution for the Puerto Rican delegation, which marched into the 1952 Opening Ceremonies carrying two flags, the International Olympic Committee's banner with the five Olympic rings and a flag with San Juan's coat of arms.

The Puerto Ricans had carried the U.S. flag into the 1948 Games, their first Olympic participation. The United States protested, claiming that two countries could not use the same flag at the same time. The decree of Commonwealth on July 25, 1952, gave the Puerto Rican delegation a flag of its own.

"The creation of the Commonwealth had a direct effect on sports. Like a bolero, sports and politics danced together," said local TV sports commentator Elliott Castro, who has authored several accounts on the history of sports in Puerto Rico.

"When the referendum passed on July 25, 1952, Puerto Rico's athletes were already in Helsinki participating in the Olympics. The effect was immediate. Olympic officials went to the center of the Olympic Village, where the flags of each nation are flown, and took down the IOC flag and hoisted the new Puerto Rican flag. It was the first time the new flag was flown internationally and the only time in history a country changed flags in the middle of an Olympics."

P.R. Olympic Committee president Julio Enrique Monagas headed up that delegation, which also included track star Reinaldo "Pochy" Oliver, Brincito Roman and Juan Curet.

"I have often wondered what would have happened had we won a gold medal in 1948 or 1952 before that moment," said Castro. "What national anthem would have been played? That moment when the new flag was raised on the Olympic Village had to have been a very emotional moment for Puerto Rico's delegation.

Maybe those guys didn't then yet understand the magnitude of it, but that was the birth of Puerto Rican sports."

By Castro's account, the first time an athlete ever carried the Puerto Rican flag into an opening ceremonies was in the Pan American Games of 1954.

"Ironically, it was Roberto Santana, a statehooder, who carried the flag into those ceremonies in Mexico in 1954," said Castro. "For the Commonwealth, competition in sports became very important. It's something that I became aware of over the years. I think the Olympic Committee missed a great opportunity to commemorate 50 years of Commonwealth and sport."

Even before the Commonwealth was established in 1952, Puerto Ricans had made their mark in sports. Puerto Rico's first world champion in boxing was Sixto Escobar and his heyday was back in the 1930s. Juan Evangelista Venegas won Puerto Rico's first Olympic medal, a bronze, in 1948.

As competitive sports grew after World War II, Puerto Rico's interest boomed. Hiram Bithorn, a pitcher, was the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues and those from the island who could not break the color barrier played in the Negro Leagues. Luis Rodriguez Olmo, Vic Pellot Power, Orlando "Peruchin" Cepeda and Roberto Clemente are just a few of the Puerto Ricans who starred in the major leagues since 1952. Today, Puerto Ricans like Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Edgar Martinez, Javier Lopez, Carlos Delgado and many others not only represent the island in the big leagues but are also the stars of the show.

"For me the 1997 All-Star game was a moment that won't be repeated," said Castro. "That was a major coup."

Puerto Ricans were the game's protagonists that year as all the runs were either batted in or scored by Puerto Ricans. Jose Rosado was the American League's winning pitcher. Javier Lopez knocked in the NL's only run and Edgar Martinez and Sandy Alomar batted in the AL's run while Ivan Rodriguez scored a run.

While Puerto Ricans like Charlie Pasarell, Gigi Fernandez and Chi Chi Rodriguez, have excelled in tennis and golf, the island's accomplishments have come mostly in the sports of baseball and boxing.

Both Puerto Rico Boxing Commissioner Jose "Toto" Penagaricano and former Commissioner Mario Rivera Martino consider the 1970s to be the island's golden era of boxing.

"Wilfredo Gomez won 32 consecutive fights by knockout and at that time Wilfredo Benitez had a record of 45-1 and that only loss was to Sugar Ray Leonard," said Rivera Martino. "I think that was our most glorious era and it was more pure because there were fewer entities at the time."

While Penagaricano is particularly proud of the accomplishments of the current crop of boxers, including Felix "Tito" Trinidad, John Ruiz, Daniel Santos, Miguel Cotto, Nelson Dieppa and Daniel Seda, he thinks the Œ70s were another story completely.

"Forget about 50 years of Commonwealth. The best boxer period was Wilfredo Gomez," said Penagaricano. "He was electrifying in the ring, he danced. He was the only boxer who could knock his opponents out while moving backwards. When he defeated Carlos Zarate at age 21, well it was magic."

Aside from pro sports, Puerto Rico has also made an appearance in 14 Olympics, competing uninterrupted since 1948 and defying boycotts both in 1980 (Moscow) and in 1984 (Los Angeles).

The island has won six medals in its 52 years of Olympic participation. All of them have been in boxing. Puerto Ricans have also won six Olympic medals competing for the United Sates, the most notable of which are Gigi Fernandez's two gold medals in women's doubles tennis (Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996).

Finally, no story about sports in the past 50 years would be complete without mentioning basketball. Puerto Rico's best finish internationally was fourth place at the World Basketball Championships in Buenos Aires in 1990. One year later, the island quintet won the gold medal at the Pan Am Games, defeating the U.S. team. It was the last time a regional or international basketball event would be played with all amateur teams. Puerto Ricans who have seen playing time in the NBA ranks include

Butch Lee, Ramon Ramos, Ramon Rivas, Jose Ortiz, Daniel Santiago and Carlos Arroyo.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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