Puerto Rico has been participating in the Olympics since 1948. It’s a simple fact, and viewers aren’t surprised to see Puerto Ricans playing for the USA or for Puerto Rico…and stateside athletes of Puerto Rican heritage playing for Puerto Rico or the USA. The Olympians of Team Puerto Rico play under the Puerto Rican flag, and when Monica Puig earned the first gold medal for Puerto Rico, they played “La Borinqueña.”
That’s not how Puerto Rico’s Olympic history began.
The Central American Games
Puerto Rico’s involvement in the Olympics actually began at the Central American Games in 1930. This event is connected with the Olympics; the Olympics Committee for each participating area must enter the athletes. It was a competition designed to bring Latin America into the Olympics and to support the Olympics.
The U.S. ambassador in Havana, Cuba, invited Puerto Rico to represent the United States at the games. The Governor of Puerto Rico at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., supported the delegation, and they carried the U.S. flag. The “Star Spangled Banner” was played as their anthem.
In 1935, the team played under the Puerto Rican flag. However, the band didn’t know “La Borinquena,” and they played the national anthem of El Salvador for the winners from Puerto Rico. In 1938 and 1946, the team went back to the U.S. flag and anthem.
The 1948 Olympics
With years of success at the Central American Games, Puerto Rico’s Olympics Committee requested permission to field a team in the 1948 Olympics.
The Olympic Games had been canceled for a period of 12 years because of World War II. Germany and Japan were not invited, and the Soviet Union sat out of the games. The international Olympics Committee needed more teams, and they allowed Puerto Rico as well as Trinidad and Tobago, British Guinea, and Bermuda to compete. The U.S. territories of Alaska and Hawaii competed on the U.S. team, but Puerto Rico wanted to field their own athletes separately.
The United States allowed Puerto Rico to compete as a separate team, but did not allow them to carry the Puerto Rican flag. They also could not carry the U.S. flag, because the Olympics does not allow two teams to carry the same flag. They carried a white flag with the shield of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican boxer Juan Evangelista Venegas won a bronze medal.
The Puerto Rican flag
The white flag was flown in the 1952 Olympics, along with the U.S. flag, in a unique workaround. However, Congress approved Puerto Rico’s constitution during the games, and the team began using the Puerto Rican flag immediately. With no objections from the United States, Puerto Rico has continued to use the Puerto Rican flag and anthem at all Olympics and Central American Games since then.
Puerto Rico also competes in the Pan-American Games, World Baseball Classic, FIFA events and FIBA events.
Now, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have teams at the Olympics. Some Hawaiian athletes petitioned to have their own team for surfing this year, but the International Olympics Committee did not acknowledge their petition. No state has ever fielded a separate Olympics team or formed a separate Olympics committee.
The International Olympics Committee allowed Hong Kong to compete separately from China after its reunification with China in 1997. Taiwan also has its own team; they are called “Chinese Taipei.” These arrangements were agreed between China and the International Olympics Committee. The IOC and the United States could make similar deals to allow Puerto Rico to continue fielding its own team after statehood. (Of course, we are not suggesting that the United States and Puerto Rico are like China and Hong Kong or Taiwan; we only point out the relevance to the Olympics.)