Tuesday, August 17, 2004

TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY? Why does Puerto Rico have its own Olympic team? It's a question that's been making the rounds since the island's basketball squad trounced their American, um, compatriots.

But even the Puerto Ricans I've asked don't have an answer.

So I got in touch with Gabrielle Paese, an Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star and a columnist for the Puerto Rico Herald. Paese, acknowledging that the issues involved are murkier than one might expect, noted that Puerto Rico fielded its first Olympic team in 1948, the same year the island was granted limited governmental autonomy.

But the Puerto Rican Olympic history that she directed me to (translated automatically, and erratically, by Google) doesn't link the two dates in any way.

In fact, it makes the United States seem peripheral to the entire matter, focusing exclusively on the island's petition to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as if Puerto Rico could have started competing at any time.

So was it the island's new status that made the difference? Are the two dates coincidental? Was something else at play?

A couple hours later, I appear to be more or less back where I started.

UPDATE: Slate intern Alexander Barnes Dryer solves the mystery here:

Puerto Rico can send athletes to Greece because the International Olympic Committee...has recognized the island's National Olympic Committee. Such committees are the official representatives of each Olympic delegation and are approved only after meeting criteria established by the IOC.

But while the standards such national committees must meet are clear, the rules governing who can form them are considerably murkier. The Olympic Charter explains that "the expression 'country' means an independent State recognized by the international community," and the IOC recognized Puerto Rico as such an entity in 1948.

Although the United States granted the island the right to elect its own governor in the same year, that power is nothing like full independence. The US Department of the Interior still classifies Puerto Rico as an "insular area" of the United States—a "jurisdiction that is neither a part of one of the several States nor a Federal district."

But apparently the IOC considers insular areas sufficiently independent to participate in the games; the committee recognized the US Virgin Islands in 1967, Guam in 1986, and American Samoa in 1987.
So, the IOC--not exactly a model of clarity and precision. In fact, it looks like there's been a bit of fudging going on here.

Wouldn't be surprised if we hear more about this in the coming weeks.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.