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Puerto Rico Losing Ground At CAC Games Level

By Gabrielle Paese

December 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rican athletes are winning medals left and right in El Salvador at the Central American-Caribbean (CAC) Games, but when the last wrestler is safely back in San Juan come Monday, a second sporting competition will get under way just outside the hallowed halls of the Casa Olimpica, the Olympic Committee's historic home in Puerta de Tierra.

Call it the post-CAC Games Analysis Championships.

Expect the media to lead this contest, which will consist of Olympic Committee (PROC) officials defending the island's sub-par performance in San Salvador while fans, government officials and sports leaders point accusing fingers of blame and search for an explanation as to why Puerto Rico didn't win enough medals.

Even with the CAC Games not yet finished, the handwriting is already on the wall. Puerto Rico looks to end up sixth or seventh among the competing nations, its worst overall finish yet -- and this without Cuba participating. Add to that the fact that Puerto Rico will win fewer gold medals than six other countries, including Guatemala -- and this without sports powerhouse Cuba in the house.

PROC president Hector Cardona already warmed up this week in preparation for the post Games Analysis Championships.

"We are meeting our expectations, which was to improve on our performance at the '98 Games in Maracaibo [Venezuela]," Cardona told reporters. "We've won plenty of medals already, and we are going to surpass 90, which was our goal."

In the 1998 CAC Games in Maracaibo, Puerto Rico won just 80 medals (with Cuba present), finishing fifth overall among the competing nations, its worst finish since the 1954 CAC Games in Mexico, the only previous time that Puerto Rico finished sixth.

While Mexico's spot on the medals leaderboard is to be expected in Cuba's absence, how come countries like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Guatemala can surpass Puerto Rico? These are all nations with fewer resources, more socio-economic problems and less stable governments than Puerto Rico. What gives?

Post-Maracaibo, Cardona sought after, and got, nearly four times the amount of sports funding the PROC had previously received [Please see my Vol. 6 No. 11 column: "Will more money mean more problems for PROC?"]

The government, for the first time in history, handed out subsidies to elite athletes, throwing at least another $2 million to its Aid to Full-Time Athletes program.

With the money, of course, comes the accountability, and Cardona is going to take most of the heat in the Analysis Championships. After all, it's government money that is being spent -- your tax dollars at work, if you will.

Why does the PROC need so many tax dollars? Where else is the money going to come from? Local corporations will be happy to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Puerto Rico look good in the eyes of major league baseball when the Montreal Expos play their 22-game homestand in 2003 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, but are quick to roll up their car windows when an amateur athlete comes by asking for a handout in the parking lot. Why?

Two reasons: One, local companies get much better exposure with their logo on a sign in big-league right field than they will from a female weightlifter who is a longshot for a medal at the CAC Games being held in far-off El Salvador. Two, there's a widespread distrust of the PROC. No one has ever proven any foul play, but a lot of people think that the government money goes into the PROC coffers, but doesn't necessarily trickle down to the athletes. While governments rarely know where their money goes, corporations like to audit down to the last penny.

The bottom line in the medal-winning business is cold, hard cash. The more resources a country devotes to its athletes, the better they will perform.

Even though the CAC Games could be considered the last bastion of amateurism, Puerto Rico's "pro" athletes fared the best. Cases in point: tennis pro Kristina Brandi, swimmer Ricky Busquets and Hobie 16 sailor Quique Figueroa. All won gold medals. Both Busquets and Figueroa were given the full government subsidies, Brandi plays on the WTA pro tour.

If Puerto Rico wants to recover its spot among the top three among the Central American-Caribbean nations, it needs to invest even more in its athletes.

And I'm not just talking about money.

There's an even simpler explanation for Puerto Rico's downward spiral in regional competitions: Lack of a solid base. U.S. coaches like to make fun of the old Eastern Europe and Cuban sports machines that search the countrysides for talented toddlers and tag them for specific sports, but there's nothing wrong with pointing out potential -- even if Puerto Rico's government is not at liberty to obligate the parents to turn young Juan into a rower or a judoka.

Here's where Puerto Rico fails on the grandest of scales. The island's public schools are still struggling to teach one hour (one hour!) of physical education per week and few offer after-school sports programming.

Sports like baseball and basketball have well established youth programs, which is not true of the rest of the sports federations. Some have excellent development programs, but cost more to practice than the average Puerto Rican can afford. And soccer, the game played around the world in developing nations, is so mired in corruption in Puerto Rico that the federation is currently under investigation by FIFA, the sport's governing body.

Who is going to win the gold medal at the post-CAC Games Analysis Championships? The answer is no one.

But if Puerto Rico wants to continue to measure its might by the yardstick of sports muscle, the island needs to invest its resources in kindergarten gym class. The move will pay big dividends in 2017.

South Korea meets San Juan

Last year's winter league pitching sensation was Japanese native Hideki Irabu starting for the Santurce Crabbers. This week, Carlos Baerga added a new box-office draw to his Bayamon Vaqueros. Korean league star Chang-yong Lim, Baerga's teammate from the Korean league's Samsung Lions in 2001, has joined the Vaqueros bullpen.

Lim is up for Korean league free agency, which means the Lions will listen to major league offers for his contract this winter. And what safer place to test the big league waters than Puerto Rico's winter league than Bayamon?

Lim is already big league material, according to several Puerto Rican major leaguers. Big league scouts watched him help South Korea to a 4-3 victory over Taiwan in the Asian Games two months ago. He also pitched on Korea's bronze-medal winning Olympic team in 2000. The 26-year-old right-handed sidewinder finished the 2002 season with a 17-6 record and a 3.08 ERA. He's a workhorse, pitching 204 1/3 innings last season and averaging 128.6 innings in his eight seasons with the Lions.

Pitching coach Juanchi Nieves and Bayamon manager Carmelo Martinez are going to have to break out the translation books. Lim speaks no English or Spanish and communicates through his own personal interpreter, Min-Soo Kim.

Speaking of the winter league, the Caribbean Series, which will be held at Carolina's Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium Feb. 1-7, 2003, is about to get its own website. The site's not operational yet, but when it's up and running, you'll be able to get winter league info at In the meantime, has also added the Caribbean winter leagues to its regular website. The statistics still come from Sportsticker and are the same ones posted on, but also has some player features.

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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