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The Sciences

Colonialism Meets International Athletics

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJanuary 26, 2006 11:03 AM


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This post isn't about science, but it is about something close to my heart. For a long time, I've been outraged over the eternally-unresolved status of U.S. territorial possessions like Puerto Rico and Guam, and over the disenfranchisement of Americans right here in Washington, D.C., who aren't allowed to have voting representation in Congress. Now, a cool website is using the Olympics to publicize D.C.'s status plight. The argument is that if DC isn't granted statehood, then like the other U.S. territories (read "colonies"), it ought to be allowed to have its own Olympic team. In essence, this is a publicity stunt to draw attention to D.C.'s disenfranchised status. But I think it's a worthy one. So I suggest you go to the site and use it to send a letter, just as I did.

Incidentally, I can't resist noting that I was writing about this very fascinating subject--colonialism and international athletic competition--quite a while ago, although I focused on the World Cup instead of the Olympics. Here's the text of a brief unsigned humor article from the American Prospect, penned while the 2002 World Cup was raging. The piece, which employs the royal "we" as per the style of the magazine section in which it appeared, doesn't seem to be available online any more. So I've posted it in its entirety:

D.C. Goes For The Cup

Inspired by the ongoing World Cup in Korea and Japan, recently we found ourselves online perusing the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings for international soccer teams. When we scrolled down to numbers 197, 198, 199, 200, however, we were startled to discover that these lowly slots are held by Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa (tied with Turks and Caicos Islands), none of whom qualified for the Cup this year. What's so odd about this so-called "ranking by country"? Well, just the fact that the "countries" in question are all actually territorial possessions of the United States (# 13), which, unlike such perennial World Cup favorites as France (# 1), Argentina (# 2), and Italy (# 6), do not enjoy political sovereignty. These territories lack voting representation in the U.S. Congress, and what's more, their inhabitants cannot vote in presidential elections.

Was it possible that the Swiss-based FIFA was trying to subtly undercut lingering U.S. colonialism? Astonished by the notion that in a future World Cup, the United States might be defeated by one of its territorial possessions (what would Teddy Roosevelt think?), we resolved to get to the bottom of the matter. So we sent e-mails to FIFA and placed calls to the United States Soccer Federation and the impressively named Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). By this point, our thoughts had turned to an even more startling possibility: Might Washington, D.C. -- which also lacks full representation in the U.S. Congress and is probably no closer to statehood than Puerto Rico -- also field an international soccer team and compete against the U.S.?

Certainly there's been a long tradition, in Puerto Rico at least, of expressing nationalist fervor through international athletic competitions against the United States (though usually in baseball and basketball rather than soccer). And D.C. statehood activists have previously toyed with the idea of shooting for their own Olympic Team to dramatize their plight. Moreover, the World Cup has traditionally been a grand global forum for the rest of the world to jeer at the "arrogant" U.S., which can throw its weight around in global affairs but generally gets it handed to them on the pitch. If the hegemon got taken down by one of its own territories, so much the better, right? No doubt the French would get a real kick out of it.

FIFA didn't get back to us; they were all busy at the World Cup. But by this point we had made up our minds: Give D.C. a team! The question of the District's status has been far too long on hiatus, and at the very least this might shake things up a bit. Not to mention that resounding principle of our post-colonial era, so well understood by the Puerto Ricans: If you can't join them, beat them! Witty, no? If you think so, that's because (as I seem to recall) I had a little help on this piece from then-Prospect editor and now Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, who has a facility with language that I will always envy.

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