- The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity and International Politics in Puerto Rico by Antonio Sotomayor
Can a nation be a nation without a head of state? Can a country exist without its own currency? Can nationalism thrive through sport? Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory, may not have the status of nationhood, but it does have a sovereign Olympic team. Antonio Sotomayor's interesting depiction of sport and nationalism explores how Puerto Rico employs sport in a quest towards its own nationhood.
Throughout the twentieth century, sport was a platform for building nationalism. Although previous Olympiads did not formally have national teams, the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis saw nations compete on the world stage for the first time. This moved the forum of elite international sports away from a spectacle of dazzling oddities, as appeared in the 1900 Paris Olympiad, to a neutral platform of competition among nations, replete with flags, national anthems, medal counts, and newly adorned heroes. The Olympics became an important forum of imagining, building, and reinforcing nationalism. Nine Puerto Ricans, all men and all legally US citizens, participated in the 1948 London Olympics under their own flag. In the opening parade, the newly formed countries displayed their national flags for the first time, but Puerto Rico raised a coat of arms, a heraldic relic dating from 1511 Spain. The iconic red, white, and blue Puerto Rican flag, displayed by Puerto Rican athletes in 1935 at the Central American and Caribbean Games, was nowhere in sight.
Are these simply questions of iconography or symptoms of an unwarranted attention to flags? Or is Puerto Rican concern with representation in international sport part [End Page 420] of a deeper political struggle of nationalism, identity, and anticolonialism? Sotomayor argues that the practice and role of elite sport in Puerto Rico is not merely important for understanding Puerto Rican nationalism, but is an essential part of it. He raises the question of why Puerto Rico, unincorporated as it is but with a population who are US citizens, has its own Olympic Committee, and its own representation at international sporting events.
The message of this book is that Puerto Rican nationalism and populism found a natural place of expression in sport. When the Puerto Rican delegation raised the Puerto Rican flag at the 1935 Central American and Caribbean games, it set off a diplomatic panic in the United States that nationalism and anti-Americanism were on the rise. After 1935, Washington ordered the Puerto Rican delegation to fly only the US flag. Sotomayor skillfully unpacks the importance of symbolic nationalism through sport for Puerto Rico. The strength of his work is less in the details of sport itself and more in how Puerto Rican leaders and populists found a platform for advocacy through their elite athletes. The book highlights the historical origins of sport in Puerto Rico, even acknowledging the impact of the Spanish in bringing certain sport and recreation activities to the island.
The first two chapters show how the United States encouraged "Americanized" sports in Puerto Rico, both to paint over Spanish colonial legacies and to modernize Puerto Rico into an Americanized neo-colony. A strong and unexpected aspect of Sotomayor's work comes to light in Chapter 5, when he discusses Cuba's participation in the 1966 Central American and Caribbean games in Puerto Rico. With dozens of revolutionary Cuban athletes arriving in Puerto Rico, a country that received thousands of Cuban exiles, both San Juan and Washington were panicked at the potential for protest and conflict. The chapter carefully uncovers the conflicts between rival nations to show that they override any neutrality in elite sport, to the point where public safety and security are on the line.
This book would be a valuable inclusion for any library dedicated to the history of nationalism in the Americas. Although Sotomayor's work is not a complete history of sport in Puerto Rico, his book brings forward a powerful argument about the ways...