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Politics And Sport: Who Really Are Puerto Rico's 50 Greatest Athletes?

By Gabrielle Paese

May 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

They say politics is Puerto Rico's favorite sport. I'd like to add this: If Puerto Ricans devoted as much time, energy and money to sports as they do to politics, the island would have more world champions, Olympic gold medals and Hall-of-Famers than palm trees. Instead, we have today's $72,000 question -- a political discussion about sports.

Last week, the Department of Sports and Recreation (DSR) unveiled a special exhibition in Old San Juan entitled "Figures, moments and gestures: 50 years of Puerto Rican sports history 1952-2002." A total of 50 athletes were selected to an exclusive club commemorating 50 years of its Commonwealth.

These 50 athletes were selected as those whose performances were significant to Puerto Rican sport over the past 50 years. To this mix, the exhibition added 15 great moments in Puerto Rican sports over the past 50 years. Also within the exhibition, but not on the list of the exclusive 50, was a list of Puerto Ricans in the United States, where special mention was made of Gigi Fernandez, Jesse Vassallo, Jose "Chegui" Torres. All three represented the United States. Fernandez won two Olympic gold medals in women's doubles tennis (1992, 1996) while Torres won a gold medal in boxing in the 1956 Games. Vassallo, who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 but did not compete due to the U.S. boycott, competed for the United States at the 1979 Pan Am Games in San Juan, winning gold and silver and setting one of his three world records.

Vassallo, Torres and Fernandez weren't the only ones left off the list. Puerto Rico's only Olympic medalists (in the past 50 years), boxers Luis Francisco Ortiz (silver, Los Angeles 1984), Aristides Gonzalez (bronze, L.A. 1984), Anibal Acevedo (bronze, Barcelona 1992) and Daniel Santos (bronze, Atlanta 1996) got no mention either.

But the exclusion of Vassallo, Fernandez and Torres was essentially what tipped off the mother of all political arguments this week here. It didn't help matters that the DSR's selection committee featured three prominent independentistas.

Politicians from both sides of the fence said the exhibition only served to point up Puerto Rico's identity crisis. I don't know whether I'd call it an identity crisis, but I've learned in my 14 years of covering Puerto Rican sports that the notion of just who can be a Puerto Rican athlete depends upon whom you talk to. Also, it can totally transcend party lines (remember statehooder Felix Trinidad Sr.'s total rejection of former WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz? Trinidad Sr. said Ruiz was not Puerto Rican because he was born in Boston).

Whether you agree or disagree with the exhibition's "50 Greatest," no one is indifferent. The subject elicited passionate opinions this week from everyone from bus drivers to sports leaders.

Here's mine.

If you take away Gigi Fernandez's two gold medals, what are you left with? You have a woman who won 17 Grand Slam doubles titles on the women's pro tennis tour and was ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles eight times between 1990 and 1996. For her pro tennis career alone and the ground she broke for Puerto Rican women in tennis, Fernandez deserved to be on that list.

Consider this: When Fernandez was in her prime in doubles, in 1992, the door was opened for pros to play in the Olympics. Fernandez's only chance at gold was playing with someone at her level for the United States. Her detractors would have us believe that she should have represented Puerto Rico honorably and finished last instead of going for a medal wearing U.S. flags on the pockets of her tennis skirt.

Why, then, is it so generally accepted that Puerto Rico's great baseball players have tested their skills in the major leagues for these past 50 years? By the selection committee's parameters, shouldn't they be content to play amateur baseball in Osvaldo Gil Bosch's Sunday circus or be satisfied with the pro winter league?

And along those same lines, if Jesse Vassallo's only crime was that he sought better coaching in the United States and did not remain in Puerto Rico to train (as the swim federation rules at that time stated), then why were athletes like New York-born Puerto Ricans (Niyorrican) Ray Dalmau and John Candelaria (both on the "50 Greatest" list) so openly embraced? They also did most of their key training in the United States.

My point here is that given Puerto Rico's political status, Jesse Vassallo and Gigi Fernandez brought just as much glory to Puerto Rico (if not more) by competing for the United States. By their accomplishments, they gave tiny Puerto Rico a much bigger forum in the same way Puerto Rico's major league ballplayers give the island greater visibility every time they step up to the plate or throw a pitch.

Neither Fernandez nor Vassallo ever denied being Puerto Rican. No one who was in San Juan in 1979 will ever forget the tiny Puerto Rican flag Vassallo held aloft as he took the podium to receive his gold medal for the U.S.

Finally, if you organize an exhibition of Puerto Rican sports and are going to make a separate category for "Puerto Ricans in the United States," as the DSR did, you better make sure you take a geography lesson. Future Hall-of-Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez (on the 50 list) lives and files his taxes in the state of Florida. Candelaria, like Dalmau, was born in one of the five boroughs (New York City). Jose "Cheo" Cruz calls Houston, Texas, home. All of jockey Junior Cordero's (on the list) horse-racing glory came from competition in the United States. He also calls New York home.

For better or worse, Puerto Rico and the United States are inexorably tied together. With 3.8 million Puerto Ricans living on the island and an estimated equal or greater number living in the United States, it's going to get more and more difficult to uphold a xenophobic and insular attitude.

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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