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Puerto Rican athletes won’t feel economic pinch in quest for island's 1st Olympic gold

DAEGU, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Javier Culson of Puerto Rico celebrates with his country's flag after claiming silver in the men's 400 metres hurdles final during day six of the 13th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Daegu Stadium on September 1, 2011 in Daegu, South Korea.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

DAEGU, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 01: Javier Culson of Puerto Rico celebrates with his country's flag after claiming silver in the men's 400 metres hurdles final during day six of the 13th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Daegu Stadium on September 1, 2011 in Daegu, South Korea. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)  (2011 Getty Images)

Puerto Rico may be wrestling with an economic crisis as it stumbles under the burden of $70 billion in outstanding debt, but its Olympics-bound athletes won’t be stumbling because of it.

“Things have been prioritized,” Carlos Guzman, an athletic trainer who is on the board of Puerto Rico’s track and field association, told Fox News Latino. “There have been other programs that haven’t been able to get funded, but Olympic athletes haven’t had any issues.”

Guzman, who has been a trainer for 30 years, says Puerto Rico has a history of supporting its athletes, despite financial and other hardships.

“The Olympic athletes have moved ahead with their programs. Other sports that aren’t related to the Olympics have been affected. The travel, nutrition, trainer pay, diet hasn’t been impacted. There has been a budget for all of our 41 athletes who will be competing.”

Guzman, 53, is personally involved training Olympic athletes Andrés Arroyo, Wesley Vázquez (both in the 800 meters) and Eric Alejandro (400 m hurdles).

“There are always resources for our athletes,” Guzman told FNL. “Puerto Ricans support their athletes whether it’s by programs, donations or campaigns. The people are generous and they are represented by these young athletes.”

That generosity may be tested in years to come. The economic hardships have caused many to leave the island in recent years by the tens of thousands every year. Many of them of working age.

The U.S. government recently passed a measure aimed at controlling Puerto Rico’s financial difficulties. Pres. Barack Obama promised that PROMESA, as the law is known, will “provide prosperity over the long term.” But in the short term, austerity measures are sure to be part of the deal.

And the island’s National Olympic Committee relies more on private donations than many other countries athletic programs do.

Guzman said that the Olympic Committee spends $7 million a year. About half of that comes from the island’s government, and the other half from private sources and donations.

The money pays for expenses, equipment and trainers, as well as athletic infrastructure of training like the Olympic training facility in Salinas, Albergue Olímpico Germán Rieckehoff Sampayo.

The training center is named after one of the giants of Puerto Rico’s Olympic movement, who campaigned vigorously to keep politics out of athletics. In 1982, the island’s government withheld funding for the island’s delegation to the Central American and Caribbean Games being held in Cuba.

Rieckehoff Sampayo launched a campaign to get financial contributions for the team directly from citizens, and the response was so overwhelming, the extra money was used to buy the first 80 acres of the Albergue Olimpico.

“Since then politicians learned that they can’t mix politics with sports,” Guzman told FNL. “They always support sports.”

In fact, a law passed in 1985 stipulates that the government cannot interfere with the country’s federations and National Olympic Committee who are in charge of preparing the island’s athletes for international competitions.

Puerto Rico first participated in the Olympic Games in 1948 and hasn’t missed any Summer Olympic game since. The country has won eight medals in its history -- six of them in boxing -- but the country is still in search of its first gold medal.

At the 2012 London Olympics, Javier Culson won bronze in the 400 m hurdles, and Jaime Espinal won silver in freestyle wrestling. Both men qualified again, and they are probably Puerto Rico’s best bet for a medal in Rio.
 
For residents of the U.S. territory, seeing the island’s athletes at the Olympics is a matter of pride.

“We appreciate our athletes,” Guzman told FNL. “It’s important for us to see our flag and hear our national anthem being played at the games.”