Puerto Rico: Sovereign Olympic Colony?

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Athens, Greece, 2004

Carlos Arroyo pulls on his jersey as Puerto Rico seals the victory over the “Dream Team” United States Basketball team, a stunning upset considering Puerto Rico had not beaten Team USA Basketball before.“I thought Puerto Rico was part of the United States, why do they have their own team?” is a common sentiment that could be heard around the globe by people that do not understand the complicated Olympic and political relationship that Puerto Rico has with the United States. Since 2004, Puerto Rico has won numerous Olympic medals, including Monica Puig’s 2016 Gold medal in Rio for tennis, which has only raised the same question again, “how can Puerto Rico be a part of the U.S but still have an independent Olympic team?”.

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Puerto Rico is a part of the United States by virtue of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, where Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. Later in the year 1900, U.S. President McKinley signed into force the Foraker Act, which not only established a civil government in Puerto Rico with a governor and a resident commissioner, but also established that the U.S Federal Laws would also apply to Puerto Rico, as they do to all the U.S states. In 1917, U.S. President Wilson signed the Jones Act, which formally granted U.S citizenship to Puerto Rico and its citizens; between these 2 Acts, Puerto Rico’s complicated political status was born. Puerto Rico is neither a state of the U.S, nor independent. Instead Puerto Rico is in the colonial limbo; a complex legal penumbra.

So, why does a colony (or to be politically correct “a territory”) of the United States, enjoy the benefits of international Olympic recognition? How is this even possible? The International Olympic Committee (IOC) originally recognised Puerto Rico in January 1948. The then President of The Puerto Rico Recreation and Sports Department, Julio Monagas, wrote a letter to the IOC President, J. Sigfrid Edstrom, asking for the official recognition of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee (COPUR), to which Mr. Sigfrid Edstrom replied in January 1948, notifying of the official recognition of COPUR in the 42ndsession of the IOC celebrated in France in January 1948. The IOC recognised Puerto Rico as a country based on its definition of “country” located in Article 30 of the Olympic Charter which defines it as “an independent State recognised by the international community”.

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The IOC considers that Puerto Rico not only has autonomy, but also has a unique national identity different from the U.S. Therefore, the IOC considers these factors to fit its definition of ‘country’ and has classified Puerto Rico as a country, independent from the U.S, for the past 71 years. Since then, Puerto Rico has enjoyed international recognition by the IOC which allows the small island to participate as a sovereign country and allows Puerto Rican athletes to represent the Puerto Rican flag and colours instead of the U.S flag. COPUR is an independent entity that, in theory, functions independently of the people in power or the political status in Puerto Rico. The international recognition the IOC granted COPUR therefore remains independent from the political status in Puerto Rico.

Recent developments have made questioning Puerto Rico’s political status as a ‘territory’, and labeling it as a colony, not only possible but accurate.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘colony’ as: “a settlement in a foreign country possessed and cultivated, either wholly or partially, by immigrants and their descendants, who have a political connection with and subordination to the mother-country, whence they emigrated”.

As recent as 2016, the U.S Supreme Court case Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle established that for the purposes of the ‘double jeopardy’ clause in the United States Constitution, Puerto Rico was not a separate sovereign from the U.S Government. This is the opposite to what happens with every one of the 50 states, who are considered separate sovereigns for the purposes of this clause. The case, and the conclusions drawn, require a much more extensive analysis than the scope of this article allow for, but the general take away would be, that the U.S. Supreme Court, neither  considers Puerto Rico equal to the other 50 states, nor independent. Even though this is not the only political development in recent years (see, ‘Ley PROMESA’), it might be the most prominent evidence showing that Puerto Rico is in fact, a U.S colony.

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Puerto Rico’s political status should in no way affect Puerto Rico’s Olympic Sovereignty. However, the fact remains that, Puerto Rico, a U.S colony with no tangible self-government, still has Olympic independence and sovereignty. This phenomenon, although not unique (see, Jamaica Olympic Association) is very rare.

Here’s to Puerto Rico: Sovereign Olympic Colony with a proud heart; may you represent those colors proudly, forever. 

Gilberto J. Oliveras Maldonado

2 thoughts on “Puerto Rico: Sovereign Olympic Colony?

  1. Tema difícil de proyectar al mundo pero lo expusiste claro y ameno . Como siempre habrán diferentes puntos de vista y opiniones .

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  2. Excelente artículo. Mucha gente no logra entender que el deporte internacional o de competencia entre selecciones nacionales (países) no tiene nada que ver con la política o el derecho internacional público. Organizaciones como el COI, FIFA y FIBA, entre otras, son entidades privadas con sus respectivos reglamentos los cuales establece los requisitos para poder pertenecer y competir en los respectivos torneos.

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