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Puerto Rico Beefs Up Its CAC Games Delegation

By Gabrielle Paese

November 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico's delegation headed to the Central American-Caribbean Games in El Salvador Nov. 23-Dec. 8 jumped from 285 to 406 athletes after the local Olympic Committee took advantage of Cuba's boycott and an early registration clause.

"We looked for athletes for a greater participation but also for better performance,"said Chef de Mission Sara Meltz. "All of the athletes competing at these games are well prepared and we’re hoping for a good showing."

More Puerto Rican athletes in El Salvador has to mean more medals for the island. With 406 athletes, Puerto Rico's delegation in El Salvador will now be the third largest behind Mexico (581) and host El Salvador (433). Cuba, which was to have brought 542 athletes, announced it would boycott the games earlier this month.

Given the circumstances (read: Cuba's boycott) of these CAC Games, Puerto Rico could not have made a smarter move than beefing up its delegation. The gold medals that eluded Puerto Rico in 1998 (the island won just 11) are there for the earning. Cuba's absence means Puerto Rico goes in as a medal favorite. By padding the delegation, Puerto Rico only increases its odds of winning.

Ironically, this "the more the merrier"philosophy is precisely what the P.R. Olympic Committee (PROC) swore it would move away from after the previous Olympic cycle.

Coming off a dismal 81-medal performance at the 1998 CAC Games, the PROC regrouped. The cards were laid out on the table. Puerto Rico's medal count in regional competition has been steadily declining over the past decade.

At the 1998 CAC Games, Puerto Rico won just 81 medals, its most modest performance in more than a decade. In 1993 when Puerto Rico hosted the CAC Games in Ponce, island athletes won 153 medals. In 1990 in Mexico City, Puerto Rico won 109 medals and in the Dominican Republic in 1986, local athletes won 90 medals.

What needed to be done to reverse the trend?

The new conventional wisdom dictated that more money would go to subsidize a smaller group of elite athletes resulting in Gov. Sila Calderon's Aid to Full-Time Athletes scholarship program, which has given as much as $30,000 annually to individual athletes and has a total budget of $2.1 million.

All told, the governor earmarked $3.3 million more for the PROC. She also dedicated additional funding, some of it going exclusively to the elite athletes and some tapping into junior programming, with a $1.2 million assignment exclusively for women's sports.

Meanwhile over at the P.R. Olympic Committee (PROC) and its sub-division, the Elite Athletes Commission (CAR by its Spanish acronym) planning and science held sway over the previous practice of sending athletes to the CAC Games just to gain experience.

CAR executive director Humberto Cintron pushed to educate Puerto Rico's coaches and athletes into systematic training programs. Modeled after the successes of countries such as Spain (in the 1992 Olympics), he encouraged the PROC to move away from huge delegations of athletes with little or no chance at winning medals in favor of smaller, better prepared groups.

El Salvador 2002 was to have been Cintron's first litmus test. With Cuba out, he no longer has to worry what color comes up. In all likelihood, he's going to get lots of gold, silver and bronze.

At the 1998 CAC Games in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Puerto Rico competed in 26 sports with 343 athletes winning 11 gold, 21 silver and 49 bronze medals. This group will compete in three more sports with 25 more men and 88 more women than competed in 1998. The additional sports are women's field hockey (which Puerto Rico will host), women's softball, women's handball, canoe, badminton and roller skating.

Puerto Rico's amateur baseball team veteran Wilfredo "Cano" Velez will carry the flag into the Opening Ceremonies in San Salvador "If representing your country is the highest level an amateur athlete can aspire to, then carrying the delegation's flag means I've gone beyond that,"said Vélez, who will be playing baseball in his fifth CAC Games. "I feel like the luckiest man on earth."Velez said he hopes to bring home a gold medal.

"This is my last international competition, so I'd like to retire with the gold medal. Cuba was the team to beat. Now anything can happen."

Indios start strong in Winter League

We're two weeks into the Puerto Rico Winter League season and the Mayaguez Indios, under the direction of Nick Leyva, are already pulling out in front with the Caguas Criollos and the Bayamon Vaqueros giving chase.

The Santurce Cangrejeros, managed by Mako Oliveras, got off to one of their slowest starts in years and headed into the weekend trying to stem a three-game losing streak. It's too early in the season to start talking leaders. After two weeks, sluggers Oreste Marrero (Bayamon) and Jose "Chepito"Munoz (Carolina) are both swinging hot bats.

While there's great baseball being played in three parks nightly, the fans have been slow to turn out. Attendance in winter ball has plummeted since the mid-1990s, but this 2002 season start may be an all-time low. The Bayamon Vaqueros have the best marketing strategies and are cultivating a younger fan base, but the reality is that no team is turning a profit at the gate so far.

Many of the major league stars have already said they have no intention of playing this season. Some, like Seattle pitcher Joel Pineiro and Toronto slugger Carlos Delgado, said they liked the idea of being part of a "Dream Team" when Puerto Rico hosts the Caribbean Series in February of 2003, but doubted they would be able to be part of it.

"It's been six weeks since I had [arthroscopic] knee surgery and the doctors in Toronto just cleared me to start working out again," said Delgado this week. "I'd like to play but I don't know if I'll be able to get in shape in time."

Delgado is a reserve player with the Carolina Gigantes, whose owner, Benjamin Rivera, has the rights to host the Caribbean Series in Carolina's Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium.

The Puerto Rico Winter League has no website and no plans for one this season, according to press director Brenda Rodriguez. You can track your favorite team or player by accessing and clicking on the links to winter baseball.

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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