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August 12, 2005
Shortly after I wrote a column praising Puerto Rico's victory over a U.S. team of NBA players in the first round of the 2004 Olympics, I received the following letter from Herald reader Christopher Young.
"Your article perpetuates a willingness to settle for less here on the island of enchantment. The US fielded one of the weakest teams in its Olympic history, and in fact this team performed poorly throughout the games. To hold this up as some great victory for Puerto Rico undercuts the struggle for excellence that Puerto Rico needs to pursue if it is to succeed in this competitive world."
Part of what Young says is true.
I once sat down to interview a Cuban athlete who had won just about every medal and set every record he could set in his sport. As we talked, we watched two athletes, one representing Puerto Rico, one from the United States, compete against each other.
The Cuban, who had no formal education beyond the special sports high school he attended in Havana, said to me: "Do you know why the Puerto Rican lost the match? It's because he doesn't believe he can win. Cubans expect to win, but the Puerto Rican will be happy with third or fourth place."
The Cuban went on to say that the athletes of his country and those of the United States are similar because they grow up believing they are champions.
The conversation reminded me of something Puerto Rico basketball coach Julio Toro once told me. Toro said Puerto Rico, at least on the basketball court, suffers from an inferiority complex. He accused his team of not believing in itself enough to pull out key victories. He blamed the island's collective psyche, something psychologists here call low self-esteem and attribute to the unresolved status issue and the difficulty in answering the age-old question, "Who are we?"
From a sports perspective, Young is right in his estimation that Puerto Rico needs to pursue excellence. No athlete aspires to be an also-ran.
Yet by the same token, it's unfair to hold Puerto Rico up to the same yardstick as bigger countries in this hemisphere like Mexico, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, etc.
In the grand scheme of sport, Puerto Rico doesn't spend anywhere near the amount of money, energy or effort other world-class athletes spend on their game. Unlike Cuba, Puerto Rico does not make sports a political priority. Few of Puerto Rico's athletes bother to seek out and train with the best. Most of them prefer to be the big fish in the small pond and excel locally, testing their mettle internationally only infrequently.
But finally, and this is the defining issue: Puerto Rico's really not a big island. Its inhabitants on average live below the U.S. poverty level. With nearly four million people, it ranks 23rd in population (as U.S. states go), somewhere between Alabama and Kentucky. I ask you, how many world boxing champions has Alabama produced in its history?
Puerto Rico has not won a medal in the Olympics since boxer Daniel Santos took bronze at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. That was nine years ago and aside from a first-round basketball victory over a U.S. team of NBA players during Athens 2004, there's been little for this island to cheer about on the Olympic front. In 56 years of Olympic participation (Puerto Rico debuted in London 1948), the island has won six medals, all of them in boxing.
Puerto Rico is not the only country facing Olympic medal drought. Unlike other Caribbean nations (Jamaica comes to mind), Puerto Rico does not have a history of success in a sport such as track and field, which offers myriad medal opportunities for the participating country. No, Puerto Rico's traditional sports are boxing, basketball and baseball, the latter of which is no longer an Olympic sport.
In its defense, Puerto Rico has had unparalleled success vis a vis its size in the sport of boxing. Brazil, much larger in both geographical size and population, has produced just two world champions and one in recent history, Acelino Freitas.
At this writing, Puerto Rico has four world boxing champions, more than any other country of its size. The island has had 40 world champions in its history, also an unprecedented number in comparison to other countries of its size. Not only that, Puerto Rico's former champions were among the best pound-for-pound (Wilfredo Gomez, Wilfredo Benitez, Felix Trinidad) and the most entertaining (Hector "Macho" Camacho).
As for baseball, Puerto Rico has had no shortage of stars, from Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda through Roberto Alomar and Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran. More than 200 Puerto Rican players have played in the big leagues. The decrease in the number of Puerto Ricans in the major leagues in this decade is more attributable to the organization's policy of including Puerto Rico (as a state) in its draft (the Dominicans are not subject to the draft) and other factors than lack of island talent.
I'm leaving out the accomplishments of Puerto Ricans who either are or have been at the top of their game in other sports, such as Chi Chi Rodriguez (golf), Gigi Fernandez (tennis and two-time Olympic gold medalist representing the U.S. in women's doubles), Charlie Pasarell (tennis), Junior Cordero and John Velazquez (horse racing) and Enrique Figueroa (sailing).
As for basketball, it's a tall order to expect a medal from Puerto Rico at an Olympics or a World Championship. Despite the recent success of Carlos Arroyo and Danny Santiago in the NBA, the island still has no NBA starters, much less five NBA caliber players.
Still, that doesn't stop island hoop fans from dreaming of greatness and celebrating a first-round Olympic victory over a weak U.S. team or cheering its Under 21 team's first-round successes at the U-21 Worlds currently being held in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
Herald reader Christopher Young might be right in his estimation that Puerto Rico is not anywhere near the level of basketball greatness of the United States, but let's be practical here. Given its geographical size, resources and general shortage of tall people, Puerto Rico is doing more than holding its own. That's neither apologist theory nor a willingness to settle for less. That's reality.
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 email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.