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Justas: Is it a track meet or an excuse to party?

By Gabrielle Paese

April 22, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Once upon a time, Puerto Rico’s university system, the Intercollegiate Athletic League (or LAI by its Spanish acronym) held annual track and field championships, or Justas, that were a major sporting and social event.

Although the island’s athletes were never on the same level as their NCAA counterparts stateside, the event rounded up the best local talent. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the bigger schools began recruiting athletes from other Central American and Caribbean countries, thus raising the bar but also drawing the ire of xenophobes, who felt the "Justas" should be a 100 percent Puerto Rican event.

Fast forward to 2005. The annual April event has virtually ceased to be about running and leaping or imports versus locals. It has evolved into a Puerto Rican-style Spring Break. Need evidence? As few as 6,000 students turned out to watch the athletes represent their schools under a hot Ponce sun. Meanwhile, even before the sun was setting just down the road at the El Tuque racetrack, an estimated 80,000 young people gathered for one of the biggest reggaeton/salsa concerts ever put together here. The concert’s success was the final death knell for the track meet.

The Justas is plagued with problems the university system fails to address. First of all, it is hot in Ponce and almost cruel to hold a track meet so early in the day. Second, the meet has become a power struggle between just two universities: Turabo, the Caguas school in the Ana G. Mendez system versus San German’s Inter American University. Led by two strong track coaches (Luis Dieppa of Turabo and Freddy Vargas of Inter American U., respectively) the schools compete for the overall title. That means the meet becomes more about which school accumulates the most points and less about individual performance.

A smattering of competent, mostly imported athletes, end up competing in five or six events during this fateful Saturday in April. As a result, they can’t turn out a peak performance in any one event, nor are they motivated to do so. The net goal is a team victory.

Meanwhile, the actual university students, most of whom wouldn’t know a pole vault from a shotput, could care less about the track meet and are mostly interested in the party atmosphere that has traditionally surrounded the competition.

LAI officials this year blasted the organizers of the El Tuque concert for stealing their thunder and fans. But you can’t blame the students for wanting to party and you can’t blame the promoters for offering entertainment to a young public that wants to have fun.

At first glance, the obvious solution would be to cancel the track meet altogether and carry on with the Ponce Spring Break. Not. If LAI officials are smart, they’ll combine the two events. I mean, where would NCAA football be without tailgaters? And nobody goes to the Final Four solely to watch basketball, right?

The Justas should be the party, which would make the concert the afterparty. The promoters need a bigger venue than Paquito Montaner Stadium and a more competitive track meet.

For those who really were following the track meet, here are the highlights. Turabo’s Luis Dieppa won an unprecedented 12th Justas title in the men’s division by a slim 17.5-point margin over rival Inter American University. Dieppa broke the previous record of 11 Justas wins held by UPR-Mayaguez coach Rafael Mangual.

Leading Turabo’s charge was Curacao’s Geronimo Goeloe, who didn’t set any speed records, but became the first LAI athlete in 13 years to win the 100, 200 and 400 meters in two straight years. Ramon Luis Perez was the last athlete to do it back in 1992.

Goeloe closed out Turabo’s performance with a stunning sub-47, come-from-behind clocking in the anchor leg of the men’s 4x400-meter relay. Goeloe revived Turabo from a distant fourth place in the relay in the final 100 meters for the victory.

Meanwhile, American University (Bayamon)’s Javier Culson won both the 110-meter high hurdles and the 400-meter hurdles, tying a meet record for the first event (14.18 seconds). Culson became the first American University student to win a Justas event in the school’s history.

Freddy Vargas’ Inter American University team took the women’s title with a 13-point edge over Turabo in what was Vargas’ swan song. The veteran coach announced his retirement after nearly two decades at the helm.

Diaz finishes with silver medal at Taekwondo World Championships

Dorado native Ineabelle Diaz debuted internationally last week in the heavyweight class at the World Taekwondo Championships in Madrid Spain, finishing second after losing in the gold medal match to South Korea’s Kyun Heyon Sin.

Boxer Serrano begins recovery

Boxer Joseph Serrano, who spent last month in ICU at University Hospital after being shot on his way to a training session in Caguas, was well on his way to recovery this week. Serrano’s family held the former Olympian’s 21st birthday party April 18 and also celebrated Serrano’s rapid progress. Since coming out of the coma, the young fighter has been eating solid food, standing and walking and talking, albeit with few words.

Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was 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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