Sports and Sovereignty: An Interview with Antonio Sotomayor

Antonio Sotomayor, PhD, an Assistant Professor and Latin American and Caribbean Studies Librarian at the International & Area Studies Library at Illinois

This week we speak with our very own Latin and American and Caribbean Studies Specialist Antonio Sotomayor about his debut full-length book The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico. In March 2016, Dr. Sotomayor and his book received an in-depth profile from the Illinois News Bureau in addition to other national and international coverage. Since the 2016 Olympic games, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are growing ever nearer, we caught up with the author for a few more questions about this fascinating and little-studied topic.

Glocal Notes: Your book takes as its thesis that national sovereignty can be, more than many other means under colonial rule, expressed through athletics. What are some of the real impacts on politics or public opinion that have occurred as a result of Puerto Rico’s competition and success as a team in internationally?

Antonio Sotomayor: It depends on what you mean by “real.” I view Olympic sport, and sport overall, not only as representative of politics or culture, but as politics as such and as a cultural medium. In that regard, Puerto Rico’s membership as a sovereign nation in the Olympic Movement has “real” implications in the different dynamics involved in the Olympic movement that include international relations, foreign diplomacy, representations of the nation, women’s agency in a patriarchal society, etc. Hence, Olympic participation for Puerto Ricans has given them a voice on several international political issues throughout the existence of the delegation including the Good Neighbor policy, post-WWII reconstructions, different Cold War boycotts, etc. For example, in my book, I dedicate a chapter to the Cold War conflicts that came with Puerto Rico’s hosting of the Central American and Caribbean Games in San Juan in 1966 and discuss the different ways Puerto Ricans navigated Cold War and regional politics in relation to the participation of Revolutionary Communist Cuba. Some Puerto Ricans, as allies of the United States, wanted to exclude the Cuban delegation due to their communist ideologies and were even willing to go against any policy by the U.S. to uphold their beliefs. Other Puerto Ricans – those who sympathized with Communist Cuba – defended their Caribbean “brothers” and were willing to risk their freedom to do this. This event caught the attention of the regional and international media and the resolution involved the direct intermediation of the International Olympic Movement led by an American, Avery Brundage (President of the International Olympic Committee), and a Soviet, A. Andrianov (Vice-President).

GN: The internationally competing Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team is another example of sovereignty through sports. Can you tell us about any other examples of this phenomenon, whether historical, current, or in the planning stages.

AS: The Philippines competed at the 1916 East Asian Games as a sovereign country despite being a U.S. colony. Scotland participates as a sovereign nation in the FIFA World Cup – but with Great Britain at the Olympic Games. Taiwan participates as a sovereign nation at the Olympic Games as Chinese Taipei. On the other hand, the lack of Olympic sovereignty, despite being a cultural nation, can be seen in places like Catalonia, in Spain, which has petitioned to be recognized as an Olympic nation since the early twentieth century. These examples only portray how the Olympic Movement, rather than an apolitical movement focused on entertainment, makes very political decisions by allowing some countries to participate and denying recognition to others.

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Sotomayor, Antonio. (2016) The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

GN: In your opinion, what are Puerto Rico’s chances of becoming a U.S. state or otherwise altering its political status in any way?

AS: Under the current socio-political, economic, and cultural conditions in the United States, I highly doubt that Puerto Rico will become a state of the Union. As for altering its status in any way, we’ll have to keep paying attention.

GN: There has been much in the news lately about Puerto Rico’s economic situation. Can you explain a bit about this?

AS: This is a very complicated issue and given that I’m not an economist, I might be misrepresenting the issue. But in very general terms, Puerto Ricans have had a complicated relationship with the U.S. and have grown increasingly dependent on U.S. markets. This occurred as early as 1898 when the U.S. took possession of the island after the Spanish-American War by transforming the growing local economy to fit U.S. capitalistic market interests. Local capital was destroyed in order to create dependency on U.S. goods and capital. This did not only happen through one-sided U.S. intervention; local capitalists who benefited from the new relations were also involved. Reforms during the mid-twentieth century only brought in further investment by providing tax incentives, a practice that continued until the 1970s. After new free trade agreements allowed U.S. businesses to relocate to cheaper markets, Puerto Rico slowly lost its edge and Congress eliminated the provisions for the tax incentives during a ten-year process, from 1996-2006. The remaining companies that left in 2006, coupled with the Great Recession of 2008,  created a “down-spiral of death” in the economy. Again, I’m oversimplifying the process. I would recommend that those interested in these issues read Judge Juan Torruella’s recent speech at the John Jay School of Law for a brilliant summary of the crisis.

GN: You open your book with a description of the thrill you felt while watching the live broadcast of Puerto Rico’s basketball team as they defeated the U.S. “Dream Team,” 92 points to 73, at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. What are some other important events in Puerto Rican athletic history?

AS: My book is not really a chronicle of great games or great events in Puerto Rican sport history. As a U.S. colony, I think  the greatest event in Puerto Rico’s Olympic history is having an Olympic delegation in the first place, a process negotiated with the most powerful empire the world has known. This story of Olympic agency and will is Puerto Rico’s greatest achievement.

GN: Finally, if our readers ever travel to Puerto Rico, what are some must-do, sports-related activities they should add to their itinerary?

AS: They should attend a professional baseball game during the winter season. The Professional Baseball League of Puerto Rico was established in 1938 and was, along with the one in Cuba, a training ground for some Hall of Fame major leaguers like Willie Mays, Josh Gibson, Perucho Cepeda, and Puerto Rico’s national hero, Roberto Clemente. The league champions participate at the famous Caribbean Series of professional baseball. They should also attend a basketball game of Puerto Rico’s Baloncesto Superior Nacional league, the island’s most popular sport along with baseball. At these games, the visitor will experience Caribbean sports, which are full of passion, music, and talent. As for sightseeing, they should visit the Parque Sixto Escobar, an art-deco stadium from 1935, named after Puerto Rico’s first boxing hero. The stadium is next to the popular Escambrón Beach. You can also visit the Casa Olímpica de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s Olympic Headquarters. Occupying the original YMCA building, the facility is great for hosting events and has an Olympic gym open to the public. A must-visit is Puerto Rico’s Albergue Olímpico in Salinas. There are athletic facilities to practice many sports and recreational activities. There are also children’s parks and pools, and you can visit Puerto Rico’s Olympic Museum.

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Ready for Rio?

In about a year and a half from now, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil will host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

This past summer, Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup. Leading up to the event there was no small degree of controversy, fueled in large part by popular protests against the status quo‘s apparent focus on its international image rather than on the Brazilian people’s more urgent needs (Moh 2014). The outcry particularly focused on the lack of development/infrastructure in such sectors as education, public transportation, and medical care.

In a May 2013 interview with the Bloomberg News Service, JPMorgan’s Latin American Chief Investment Analyst Philip Guarco spoke with journalist Trish Regan about Brazil’s capabilities and preparations for both events in question, as neither had yet occurred (nor had the popular protests yet begun). He noted,

“[Brazil has] actually doubled the amount on infrastructure that they’ve made over the last 10 years, from about two percent of GDP to four percent. But I think there has to be more partnership with the private sector. And unfortunately there’s been a number of moves recently by the government which I think discouraged the private sector from investing more in infrastructure.”

These doubts were widely echoed throughout international media in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup. Although the Brazilian national team suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semi-finals and then a 0-3 loss to the Netherlands in the run-off for third place (Pearson/FIFA 2014), the logistical/infrastructural issues predicted by many critics seemed to have been not only averted, but quite smoothly maneuvered. Score one for the Brazilians there.

However, as life gradually returned to normal after the event, the Brazilian economy began to register the reverberations from the weeks of lost productivity in any sector unrelated to the Cup itself, as essentially the whole nation was either directly or indirectly engaged in the mega event:

“While the month-long tournament drew a million foreign tourists to Brazil–far exceeding official expectations–economists say its impact on other sectors of the economy was decidedly negative. Some World Cup host cities declared municipal holidays on days when matches were played in local stadiums, while untold legions of workers played hooky to watch the Brazilian national team’s seven games.” (The Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2014)

Many speculators (Guarco 2013) currently agree that the high hopes that were held for Brazil as a world-class economy are now tempered with a strong dose of scepticism based on internal limitations and the often fraught relationship between the public and private sectors in large-scale projects. The recent scandal involving the widespread corruption of state-run oil giant Petrobras is one glaring example (Horch 2015).

Will the months leading up to the 2016 Olympics (August 5-21, 2016) unfold as another politically turbulent – followed by another economically stagnant – period? Or will the Games only help to solidify Brazil’s still – ostensibly – burgeoning status as the darling of the BRICS nations (“Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa”), despite the risks and challenges? Whatever the result, Brazil’s current position on the world stage is as prominent as it has ever been.

For more information about what’s in store for the fascinating nation and culture of Brazil, scroll down after the references for some recommended reading, all available at the UIUC Library.

Fore more information on Latin American and Caribbean Area Studies, please contact our Subject Specialist, Dr. Antonio Sotomayor: asotomayor@illinois.edu.


References

FIFA. (2014). “2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil: Matches.” Online: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/archive/brazil2014/matches/index.html. Accessed 18 February 2015.

Guarco, Philip and Regan, Trish (Eds.). (2013). “Will We See a Whole New Brazil in 2016?” New York: Bloomberg. Video: http://search.alexanderstreet.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/view/work/2390602. Accessed 17 February 2015.

Horch, Dan. (2015). “Corruption Scandal at Petrobras Threatens Brazil’s Economy.” The New York Times. 11 February 2015. Online: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2015/02/11/a-corruption-scandal-at-petrobras-threatens-brazils-bond-market-and-economy/?ref=topics&_r=0. Accessed 19 February 2015.

Moh, Catharina (Ed.). (2014). “Clashes Mar Brazil World Cup Protest.” BBC News. 26 January 2014. Video: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25901361. Accessed 18 February 2015.

Pearson, Samantha (Ed.). (2014). “Brazil’s World Cup Hangover.” The Financial Times. 14 July 2014. Video: http://www.ft.com/indepth/fifa-world-cup-brazil-2014. Accessed 17 February 2015.


Fore more information, check out these books at the UIUC Library

Jennings, Andrew (Ed.). (2014). Brasil em jogo: o que fica da Copa e das Olimpíadas? São Paulo, SP: Carta Maior: Boitempo Editorial.

Wood, Naomi Pueo (Ed.). (2014). Brazil in Twenty-first Century Popular Media: Culture, Politics, and Nationalism on the World StageLanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Zibechi, Raúl and Ryan, Ramon. (2014). The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New DemocracyOakland, CA: AK Press.

Rugby: A Growing Worldwide Phenomenon

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As shown in the above photos, the USA Eagles national rugby union team played the New Zealand All Blacks this past Saturday, November 1st, 2014 for an exhibition game at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The historic match was sold out, filling the 61,500-seat stadium, drawing fans from around the area and the globe to see the upstart Americans take on the mighty All Blacks, widely considered not only the best rugby team in the world, but the best sports team in the world, considering their winning record. Here’s a piece from the TV news program 60 Minutes that breaks down the All Blacks’ legacy and significance for an uninitiated North American audience. Saturday’s event marked the All Blacks’ first-ever appearance in a match in the United States.

There’s something elemental – dare I say, “pure” – about a sport like rugby (aka “Rugby football”). In this sport, which, along with soccer, “descended from the winter ‘folk-games’ which were a deeply-rooted tradition in pre-industrial Britain” (Dunning and Sheard 2005: 1), there are two teams of players, a ball on a field, time on the clock, and a few referees. No sticks, no pads, and none of the start-and-stop minutiae of more ancient games like cricket, or more recent ones such as baseball or American football. Of course there are finer points that add to the complexity of the game. But within rugby’s more elemental aspects of strength, stamina, and teamwork lies its great potential for both individual expression and synergy. As well as its worldwide appeal.

In a nutshell, the sport of rugby is played in two 40-minute halves, separated by a very brief halftime, wherein two teams (or “sides”) of fifteen players each battle to advance an egg-shaped ball into the opponent’s end-zone. A “try” in rugby is the equivalent of a touchdown in American football, but in the case of the former is worth five points as opposed to six. Another difference between scoring in rugby and American football is that, in rugby, the ball must be literally touched down onto the turf in the end-zone to count. A successful conversion after a try – a kicked ball through the goalposts – is worth two points, as opposed to the 1-point extra point in American football. Otherwise points in rugby are scored – in this regard identical to American football – by kicking the ball through the opponent’s goalposts for three points. Differing from American football, however, is the rule in which a felled ball carrier in rugby does not signify a stop of the clock or a “down” but rather that the tackled player must pass the ball onto a teammate on his or her feet to continue the advancement down the field. And, oddly enough to we Americans, while said advancement is achieved by running the ball forward, a pass to a teammate may only be executed by tossing the ball either backwards or to the side. Mistakenly passing the ball forwards would result in a penalty. Make sense? Here’s a quick recap of Saturday’s USA-New Zealand match for an example of what this all looks like at the highest level of play.

In the nations where rugby has been historically popular and remains so to this day – namely, New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Wales, South Africa, France, and Western Samoa  (Dunning and Sheard: 256) – oftentimes the role of the sport takes on great geopolitical significance. In no case was this more true than the Rugby World Cup of 1995, when the New Zealand All Blacks faced the Springboks of South Africa in the final. Set against the backdrop of the recent end of South African apartheid, the introduction of universal suffrage in that nation, and the election of formerly jailed political dissident Nelson Mandela to its office of President of the Republic, the Springbok’s dream season is expertly captured in the book Invictus by John Carlin, as well as the feature film adaptation of the same (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon). Quoting the Cape Town newspaper the Argus, Carlin sums up the national significance of the event: “‘The Rugby World Cup has led to a spectacular upsurge of national reconciliation among all races in South Africa, researchers and social scientists reported this week'” (2009: 203). With the backing and encouragement of their new, charismatic, and peace-loving leader, millions of South Africans cheered the hitherto divisive Afrikaner-majority “Boks” on to a 15 to 12 victory over the seemingly unbeatable All Blacks. Previously a symbol of the Boer-ruled apartheid regime, Mandela paid considerable attention to rugby as it related to the Afrikaner psyche as well as its potential, exemplified in the slogan “One Team, One Country.” As Carlin details, through his support Mandela convinced his constituents to do the same and come together as a nation, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, language, or politics.

While the USA Eagles were certainly also underdogs in their match against the New Zealanders, rugby perhaps has a ways to go before it attracts the most well-suited athletes of the American populace away from other sports. Even though the Eagles only scored six points on their home turf against New Zealand’s stunningly coordinated 74, the sold-out match, however, is perhaps a foreshadowing of a growing popularity of the sport on American soil. As the game grows here, as will fans’ expectations of the Eagles’ performance on the international stage. And, in that case, they had better figure out a way to first get past the All Blacks’ haka, the formidable, awesomely intense traditional Maori war dance performed before each match they play begins. As the chant goes, “Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora!: ’Tis death! ‘Tis death! ’Tis life!” (Armstrong 1964: 139). IMG_0276

Sources:

Armstrong, Alan (1964). Maori Games and Hakas: Instructions, Words and ActionsWellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed.

Carlin, John (2009). Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a NationLondon: Atlantic Books.

Dunning, Eric and Kenneth Sheard (2005). Barbarians, Gentlemen, and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby FootballOxford: Routledge.

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