Whats More Important: The Flag Or The Game?
Of the trillions of words written about the Olympic Games now about to end in Athens, surely millions were inked about the big surprise of the first round of basketball competition, the 92-73 victory of Puerto Rico over the "Dream Team" of NBA players representing the United States. It was only the third loss in Olympic history for the USA team, and the first since professionals made up the rosters in 1992. Subsequently, the Puerto Ricans lost momentum in the tournament and, after a quarter-final loss to Italy, are now out of medal contention. Team USA, on the other hand, took its opening loss to Puerto Rico as a "wake-up call" and, after yesterdays victory over previously undefeated Spain, has advanced to the semi-final round.
Most of the reporting focused on the sloppy play of the USA team, their poor shooting averages and cocky attitude. Some correctly focused on the fabulous play of Puerto Ricos Carlos Arroyo; the Utah Jazz player who carried the islands flag in the games opening ceremonies. In the game, Arroyo almost single-handedly shut down USAs hopes for victory by scoring 24 points. Jose Ortiz, a former NBA player with the Jazz added to the victory with 8 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists.
The composition of the Puerto Rico team is mostly made up of players who have temporarily packed away their jerseys from professional teams in the United States or elsewhere to represent the island of their birth, residency or cultural identification. As American citizens, each would have qualified to play on the USA team had they been selected and agreed to wear "USA" on their uniforms. That storied game had two groups of American citizens pitted against each other, a rare occurrence in Olympic team competition.
Few column inches about that game were devoted to the question of how it was that Puerto Rico had an Olympic team to begin with. Most sports reports referred to Puerto Rico as a "country" or a "nation," failing to point out that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and that its residents are American citizens. One notable exception was the article by L.A. Chung in San Jose (CA) Mercury News who found it dismaying that entities other than nations fielded teams in the Olympics. In it he jokingly questioned, "Does that mean that California could field a team?"
The article correctly points out that besides Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands also field teams. The reason is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in addition to independent nations, also recognizes independent territories, commonwealths, protectorates and geographical areas. ''Who qualifies to play on the teams is up to local National Organizing Committees (NOC) and their various sports federations and it is here that the process becomes inconsistent and sometimes ludicrous.
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) specifies that in order to represent the country in the Olympics, each athlete must be a citizen of the United States, a norm also required by IOC rules. The citizenship rule applies literally to all athletes competing for the USA but some other Olympic entities play fast and loose with the concept of "citizenship."
For example, the ace pitcher on the Greek softball team is Sarah Farnworth, an American citizen made eligible to play by Greek authorities because she is a great granddaughter of a native born Greek. Several other "Greek" softballers are also from the U.S., qualified to play by the same genetical calculus. Another Greek American, however, Tom Pappas, a world champion in the decathlon, represents the USA. In spite of the colors on his uniform, he was warmly received by the Greek public as one of their own, until an injury ended his participation in the games.
Puerto Rican sports authorities have traditionally "free lanced" when it came to deciding who is or is not Boricua in international competitions. Perhaps the most ironical example of this related to a member of the current Puerto Rico basketball squad, Peter John Ramos, the giant teen-ager just drafted by the Washington Wizards. Several years ago, Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League, judged him to be "non-Puerto Rican," when he played for the Caguas Criollos, even though he was born in Puerto Rico, of Puerto Rican parents and lived on the island until the age of 8 before moving with his family to Brooklyn, New York. They later reneged, and Ramos has become a huge source of pride for islanders.
A less fortuitous example is the case of Gigi Fernández, once named Puerto Rican Woman Athlete of the Twentieth Century; a winner of two Olympic gold medals; a winner of six Pan-American and Central American Game medals for the Puerto Rican team; a winner of seventeen Grand Slam doubles titles on the womans professional tour; an unpaid coach of the Puerto Rico Fed Cup Team; a contributor of over half million dollars to Puerto Rican organizations assisting victims of hurricanes, abused children and single mothers; and the list goes on and on. In spite of all this, when the Puerto Rico Department of Sports and Recreation (DSR) mounted a 2002 exhibition highlighting the top 50 athletes of the past half-century, Ms. Fernández, was excluded from the list.
The unspoken reason, obviously, was that Gigi had won her Olympic medals on the USA Olympic team. At the time, when asked if she would consider representing Puerto Rico at the Athens Olympics, she was philosophical. "I'm sure (that) people (would) turn it into a political issue if I decide to play. That's just the facts of our culture, the Olympic dilemma. What are we?"
NOTE: Reference PUERTO RICO SPORTS BEAT column May 31, 2002 : Gigi Fernández: "We Have A Mixed Identity"
As marvelous as are the athletic exploits of the teams and individuals now competing in Athens, the tawdry displays of nationalism by officials, fans and athletes often detract from the stated goals of the Olympics; to allow athletes to demonstrate their ability to be "Swifter, Higher, Stronger." Nowhere in the lofty language of the Olympic movement can one find anything about team medal scores, national dominance, cultural pride or political status preference.
As much as the Olympics are intended to be about athletes, it has overarchingly become a venue for geopolitics, TV ratings and the financial bottom line. Ironically, the athletes and officials are not entirely to blame for this state of affairs. How many of us would even watch Olympic competition if all athletes wore plain white uniforms devoid of national markings and embossed only with player identification numbers? Alas, in the words of Pogo, "we have met the enemy and he is us."
So what is a Puerto Rican fan to do when faced with these conflicts of citizenship versus culture? Perhaps the most poignant expression about the matter comes from a Puerto Rican resident of Queens, New York in a letter to the sports editor of the New York Times. It focused on the dilemma faced by Puerto Rican fans when international competitions pit teams representing the nation of their citizenship against teams personifying their cultural identification.
The letter described the reaction of his 11-year-old daughter who was an avid rooter for U.S. athletes since the beginning of the games but celebrated when Arroyo and his crew beat the vaunted US basketball team. She was particularly upset that the American press did not celebrate the Puerto Rican victory, especially since all members of the team were U.S. citizens.
What advice do you have for this young New Yorker, an American citizen, proud of her Puerto Rican heritage, as she follows the athletes and teams during the remainder of the Olympics? How should she react to the victories or defeats of athletes representing the USA and Puerto Rico?