05 August 2016

Why Puerto Rico and other US territories have their own Olympic teams

This evening in Rio de Janeiro, thousands of athletes will march into Maracanã Stadium, representing 207 teams—which is not to say 207 countries acknowledged as such by the United Nations.

There will also be, among others, a refugee team and the “Independent Olympic Participants” and the Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice a few delegations from “countries” you may have thought were part of the United States—the American territories of Puerto Rico (forty athletes), the US Virgin Islands (seven), Guam (three), and American Samoa (three). (The other US territory, the Northern Mariana Islands, has never fielded an Olympic team.)

So. What’s up with that? Why do the territories have their own teams?

According to the Olympic charter, “the expression ‘country’ means an independent State recognized by the international community.” Of course, “recognized by” is a hazy term; the international community is diverse and fractious body, particularly on matters of land-claims and cultural identity and all the things that make a State a State. Really, the International Olympic Committee’s stance boils down to this: If you call yourself independent and have some level of political separation from any other nation, that’s good enough. (Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has an even looser definition of “country.” American Samoa’s men’s team was for many years the lowest-ranked side in the world; there’s delightful documentary about the team, called “Next Goal Wins.”)

The US territories are neither states in the American sense nor States in the UN sense. They’re part of the USA, sorta kinda (gentle reminder: You can now preorder my book about this!) but separate enough that the IOC has given the okay to field their own teams.

And they’ve had some success at it: Puerto Rico has won eight medals nine medals (update: tennis player Monica Puig just won the territory's first gold!) and the USVI won a silver for sailing in 1988. (Bonus fun fact: all four of these territories have sent athletes to the Winter Olympics, including a bobsleigh team from American Samoa.)

In some cases, the presence of an Olympic team is itself a political statement, a way of arguing for autonomy even if, in many legal ways, it doesn’t fully exist. Hence the Palestinian team. Hence the team representing Chinese Taipei, which you know as Taiwan or perhaps the Republic of China and is not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China. (When it comes to whether or not Taiwan is part of China, well, it’s complicated.)

Within each American territory, there’s significant disagreement about what the political status should be in the future: some people are fine with the territorial set-up, some hope to become independent, some argue for statehood. So it’s not quite accurate to see the territories’ teams as a demand for a political change, at least not per se. But, politics aside, they certainly offer a sense of identity and local pride for these places that are too often forgotten by their compatriots back in the states.

When I was in Puerto Rico last year, several people reminisced to me about the 2004 Summer Olympics, when the Puerto Rican men’s basketball team defeated Team USA and its superstars—for a moment, all of Puerto Rico bonded together with a sense of nationalism. As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm has said of soccer teams, “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven people.”