Thanks to my wife, I had the vicarious experience of watching “my” country win Olympic gold last week. Monica Puig, a promising but inexperienced 22-year-old, beat Angelique Kerber, a Grand Slam champion ranked number two in the world, in the women’s tennis final. Not only was Puig the first unseeded woman to clinch the title, she was the first athlete ever to win a gold for the tiny Caribbean island nation of Puerto Rico. Never before had the anthem “La Borinquena” played at the Olympic Games.
Puerto Rico is not an independent country. It is a “commonwealth” of the United States, a colonial possession taken from Spain over a century ago. It competes in the Olympics much in the same way that India competed in tournaments prior to 1947. Puerto Ricans are technically US citizens, but they maintain a proud sense of their own national identity. Even those like my wife, who live in the United States, tend to think of themselves more as Puerto Ricans than as Americans.
My wife gripped the edge of our sofa as we watched Puig defy the steely power of Kerber. After winning the first set, Puig wavered in the second, allowing the clinical German back into the game. Anxious, my wife could hardly look as the match went into the third and deciding set. I had never seen her so nervous about sports, let alone about tennis, whose rules she barely knew. The momentum was with Kerber and the odds seemed heavily stacked against young Puig. Fearing the worst, we prepared ourselves for a heroic defeat.
What was stressing my wife was not simply the tension of the game, but the prospect of coming so close and falling short. For a little place like Puerto Rico, there is no script that entitles it to victory. Whatever our Olympic woes, Indians can at least console ourselves with the occasional grand cricketing triumph, or the refracted glory of our hockey team in its halcyon 20th century peak. Puerto Ricans have few similar examples of success. They are conditioned to think of themselves as relative minnows.
What is true in the realm of sport is also true in the realm of politics; the island is in the grips of a calamitous economic crisis worsened by its subject relationship to Washington. Its $70 billion debt has been gobbled up by merciless vulture funds that compel the shutting of schools and public services. Since 2005, the population has shrunk through emigration by nearly 10% to 3.5 million. The debacle has been compounded by the arrival of the Zika virus at a time when doctors are leaving in droves and hospitals struggle to stay in operation.
How can there be winners from here? Sporting duels like that between Puig and Kerber are not just tests of athletic brilliance. They seem to encapsulate something much larger, freighted with history and its great inequalities. In his marvellous book Football in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano describes a match in the 1994 World Cup between powerhouse Germany and underdog Bolivia, one of the poorest countries of South America. Bolivia provided the Germans with numerous scares and courageously pushed for a victory. But then the Bolivian captain was sent off and the much-favoured Germans won. According to Galeano, “Bolivia collapsed, wishing they had never sinned against the secret spell cast from the depths of centuries that obliges them to lose.”
I often think about this Galeano passage when willing onwards the teams or the athletes of the “global south” in their bouts with wealthier nations and former colonial powers. It is tempting to read too much into Senegal’s victory over France in the 2002 World Cup, for example, to inflate the achievement of a handful of men into an act of collective, historical justice. But equally, what makes sport a worthwhile obsession is that it’s more than the story of individuals. For so many of us from non-western and once colonised countries, sport is one way in which we try to turn the narrative in our favour, in which we try to break that “secret spell”.
Puerto Ricans filled the public squares in the capital San Juan to cheer on Puig. A Puerto Rican friend of my wife’s in California sat in a WiFi-enabled bus shelter to stream the third set on her phone. Puerto Rican fans in the stadium in Rio de Janeiro chanted “Si se puede” — “Yes you can.” Puig repeated their words to herself in a quiet, personal mantra. Si se puede, si se puede, si se puede. She blitzed Kerber in the deciding set, winning six games to one. Jubilant, my wife leapt about our apartment. Even I grew teary-eyed as we watched Puig crying on the podium, the Puerto Rican flag rising behind her, highest of all.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories
The views expressed are personal