Review of The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico, by Antonio Sotomayor

(This is the text of a pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review: The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico, Sport in History (pre-published online, 2017). There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.)

Antonio Sotomayor, The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Pp. 302. $60.00 US (hc). ISBN: 978-0-8032-7881-3.

Antonio Sotomayor’s The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico, was released last year – 2016. And yet, contemporary events continue to alter the lens through which Sotomayor’s excellent new volume can be interpreted. The Caribbean island commonwealth, a territory of the United States of America, continues to rumble on with a major debt crisis, with its complicated status within the US territorial hierarchy preventing it from declaring bankruptcy, as municipalities like Detroit could.[1] The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, however, provided a very different reminder of Puerto Rico’s unique status within the global community: the nation’s first Olympic gold medal, in the form of tennis player Monica Puig, who defeated Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber whilst shouts of ‘Si, se puede’ (‘Yes, you can’) emanated from her supporters in the crowd.[2] These two events display the primary tension illuminated by Sotomayor. Puerto Rico’s status as an international sporting polity would be threatened (and has been threatened explicitly) by its possible incorporation into the US as its 51st state, but its Olympic team’s very existence articulates the island’s national identity through the prism of its status as a US colony. Puerto Rico flies under its own flag – once a symbol of separatism, and formerly prevented from being used at sporting gatherings – but the independence movement itself has struggled ever since the 1948 passing of the ‘Ley de la Mordaza’ (Gag Law), enacted at the height of post-war McCarthyism and surveillance of suspected subversives by the US government, including Puerto Rican nationalists.

The US’s July 1898 seizure of Puerto Rico from Spain during the Spanish-American War was the catalyst for a reordering of Puerto Rican sporting culture. In the years following the island’s conquest, a combination of mainland US organisations (primarily the YMCA), physical education administrators, and populist ‘autonomist’ (rather than separatist) politicians created a sporting architecture that heavily emphasised American sport – baseball, basketball, athletics, boxing, etc. At least on the part of the two latter groups, this was nuanced nation-building which stressed a unique, distinctive Puerto Rican identity which nevertheless communed heavily with the US. Puerto Rico’s steps towards embracing Olympism in the late 1920s/early 1930s was twofold: on the Puerto Rican side, it was a way for the nation to engage directly with its Latin American and Caribbean neighbours, whilst for the US government, it was a means of exercising soft power in the region via the Good Neighbor Policy. The ambitions of both dovetailed with those of modern Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin, anxious to establish a foothold for Olympism in Latin America; the IOC would eventually sponsor the creation of the Central American and Caribbean Games (CACG), and Puerto Rico would first participate in the second CACGs in 1930 in Havana. Whilst the team would at first march under the US flag (with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as their anthem), their participation at the 1935 CACGs in El Salvador took on a more nationalist dimension, with the Puerto Rican delegation marching under the national flag in the opening ceremony, and shot putter Fernando Torres Collac borrowing the Salvadoran national anthem for his gold medal ceremony. (El Salvador, at the time, was ruled by Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a populist, anti-US dictator keen to show Latin American solidarity.)

Aside from discussing tensions within Puerto Rican nationalism, Sotomayor highlights other contradictions that Puerto Rico’s Olympic existence throws into sharp relief, particularly how the hazy boundary between ‘sport’ and ‘politics’ was, in the case of the first Olympic Committee of Puerto Rico (COPR), non-existent. The island would first attend an Olympics in 1948, in London. The Committee had been organised and led by Julio Enrique Monagas Sánchez through his role as commissioner of the Public Amusement and Parks Commission, a role which oversaw the ambitious post-war sports development programmes on the island at a time of industrial expansion. Monagas was a career politician with a long history as an activist with the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), which advocated keeping Puerto Rico’s new commonwealth status. The COPR’s recognition by the IOC was proof that the IOC’s much-vaunted mantra of keeping politicians from meddling in the affairs of sport had major exceptions; Monagas survived several attempts in the late 1950s to exclude him from the Committee, and he would become known as one of the Olympic movement’s most formidable Latin American operators, eventually becoming president of the Central American and Caribbean Sport Organisation (CASCO). But there were limits to this. Monagas’s power might have ensured that Puerto Rico punched well above its weight in Lausanne, but it was a different story in Washington. The tenth CACG in 1966, hosted in the Puerto Rican capital San Juan, should have been a triumphant occasion for the island, but the organising committee’s request for the US government to refuse visas to athletes from communist Cuba – ostensibly to protect the athletes from the presence of staunch anti-Castro exiles based on Puerto Rico – ended up being denied. This precipitated a standoff: the Puerto Rican authorities had continued to refuse Cuba the right to participate; and, in a dramatic bit of Cold War theatre, Castro’s response was to arrange boat transport for his athletes from Cuba to San Juan and anchor the boat in international waters while negotiations continued. With the USSR and the IOC diplomatically hovering the background, Cuba’s participation was allowed, and the Games themselves would end up being marked by protests (both pro- and anti-Castro) and defections. It was a stark reminder that, for all of the benefits of imagined nationhood, Puerto Rico was still a colony, often subservient to the whims of others.

The book is an extension of Sotomayor’s doctoral thesis; and, as such, it is possible to make some generic criticisms of his approach that chime with those of any other monographs based on a thesis. In particular, there is an over-repetition of language, terminology, and names which might keep some on track (including this reviewer), but to others will be somewhat more frustrating. There is also, despite a somewhat chronological structure, the post-1966 material feels rushed. The monograph starts and ends with a crucial episode in Puerto Rico’s sporting history – their 2004 Olympic men’s basketball team’s shock defeat of a US side which included Allen Iverson and LeBron James, but there is less political context for this and other incidents within the past fifty years of Puerto Rican Olympic sport. Then again, surely historians would be able to laterally glean the contexts for themselves? Sotomayor’s impressive volume says not only a great deal about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, but can be used in parallel to analyse similar colonial and territorial interrelationships within the geopolitics of global sport.

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

[1] Mary Williams Walsh and Liz Moyer, ‘How Puerto Rico Debt is Grappling With a Debt Crisis’, The New York Times, 1 July 2016.

[2] ‘Tennis – Puig Secures Puerto Rico’s First Gold Medal’, The New York Times, 13 August 2016.


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