Why Puerto Rico Has Its Own Olympic Team

Slate’s Explainer tackles a question many of us have had: Why Puerto Rico Has Its Own Olympic Team.

Following the lopsided 92-73 defeat the Puerto Rican men’s basketball team handed the United States in Athens Sunday, many Americans were shocked. Not only did the U.S. team lose for only the third time in the history of its Olympic competition, it lost to a commonwealth of the United States. How can Puerto Rico, whose residents are U.S. citizens, field its own Olympic team?

Puerto Rico can send athletes to Greece because the International Olympic Committee, the governing body that makes all decisions about the administration and operation of the games, has recognized the island’s National Olympic Committee. Such committees are the official representatives of each Olympic delegation and are approved only after meeting criteria established by the IOC. But while the standards such national committees must meet are clear, the rules governing who can form them are considerably murkier. The Olympic Charter explains that “the expression ‘country’ means an independent State recognized by the international community,” and the IOC recognized Puerto Rico as such an entity in 1948. Although the United States granted the island the right to elect its own governor in the same year, that power is nothing like full independence. The U.S. Department of the Interior still classifies Puerto Rico as an “insular area” of the United States—a “jurisdiction that is neither a part of one of the several States nor a Federal district.” But apparently the IOC considers insular areas sufficiently independent to participate in the games; the committee recognized the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1967, Guam in 1986, and American Samoa in 1987.

Over the years, the IOC’s practice of recognizing states that are not fully sovereign has generated controversy. In 1965, for example, the white elite of Rhodesia declared independence from Great Britain to avoid following through with a British plan to cede power to the country’s black majority. Other African nations considered the new republic illegal, and in 1972, several of them threatened to withdraw from the Munich Games unless the IOC barred Rhodesia from participating. The IOC had earlier recognized Rhodesia under its colonial flag and thus found itself in a dilemma; eventually, the committee excluded Rhodesian athletes on a technicality related to their travel documents. More recently, the IOC angered some Israelis with its decision to recognize a Palestinian National Olympic Committee. Following the move, which came in response to the 1993 peace accords between the Israelis and Palestinians, Israel petitioned the IOC to bar Palestinian athletes from marching under a “Palestine” banner. Israel’s foreign ministry claimed no such nation existed, but the IOC rebuffed the request.

Interesting. I know PR, Guam, and the Virgin Islands had their own team. (As does Taiwan, not mentioned in the article, for that matter.) It does seem rather odd, though, even with this explanation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Randy Paul says:

    When it comes to the Olympics, the UK sneds a unified team and when it comes to international football the UK splits up into Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  2. Nathan says:

    It seems odd to me as well. I wonder if Reservations would be able to qualify to have their own teams.

  3. Joel says:

    Does the IOC recognize New Caledonia or Tahiti, or potential powerhouse St. Pierre & Miquelon, with their distinctive, old-fashioned flag? Maybe they lack an anthem. How about Pitcairn?

  4. Attila Girl says:

    I’d like to see a team from Vatican City.

  5. Simon says:

    Hong Kong has its own team and has for a long time, even though it’s part of the People’s Republic of China.

    A similar situation occurs in Rugby: each of the “home nations” of the United Kingdom field their own teams: England, Wales and Scotland. The same applies in cricket. However for the Olympics they compete as Great Britain. Funnily enough, they still don’t win much.

  6. Angel says:


  7. Gerry says:

    If you don’t have a vote in congress and you don’t have a voice in electing a new president, then I say you are closer to independent state.

  8. James Joyner says:

    They don’t pay taxes, either. And they can vote for President and Congress if they’re in the U.S. proper.

  9. Peter says:

    Puerto Ricans do pay taxes, but they don’t participate in the US elections while they’re living in Puerto Rico, but if they are living in the US they can because it’s they’re right as US citizens. Puerto Rico has their own team because it’s no a state, it’s a COMMONWEALTH, all COMMONWEALTHS have they’re own Olympic team, I don’t see what’s the questioning in either PR has or hasn’t an Olympic team, for me its absurd to even question about that.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Well, Virginia, Massachussets, and Pennsylvania are commonwealths, too, and they don’t have their own team.

  11. Maria says:

    Oh my God! you people are so ignorant! If Puerto Rico didn’t “ruin” your little “Dream Team” you people would’t be discussing this theme.If we are a commonwealth like Massachussets and Virginia, well should be voting for your president ( not that I want to ) so please be considerated I give you congratulations to Puertoricans out there because my team sweat that game and won fare and square.

  12. Peter says:

    Maria I totally agree.