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Editors: Jay Kinsbruner and Erick D. Langer
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 11
Content Level: (Level 5)

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The history of sports in Latin America (including recreation and physical education) has been marked by great variety, both socially and geographically, and a recognition that sports are an integral part of society and an interactive dimension of larger historical processes. After the Conquest the Spanish, and less vigorously the Portuguese, sought to suppress indigenous games and sports as part of their pursuit of political and cultural domination and religious purification. Few Europeans participated in the remnants of Mesoamerican ball games, chueca (resembling field hockey and played by indigenous groups in Argentina and Chile), or other athletic activities surviving in isolated communities.

Simultaneously, the colonial era saw the emergence of various competitive and recreational physical activities derived mainly from older Iberian traditions, often linked to rural equestrian practices or other animal sports, and of numerous games of chance. Whites and mixed ethnic groups derived pleasure from hunting, bullfighting, horse racing (straight-line), cockfighting, and card games. Also important were work-related festivals and competitions that evolved into the "cowboy" cultures of the Mexican charro, Argentine gaucho, Chilean huaso, and Venezuelan llanero. From the Basque Page 929  |  Top of Articleregion came related ball games (pelota vasca) that evolved into squash, handball, and jai alai, especially popular in the Southern Cone and areas in and around the Caribbean, including Mexico.

By the mid-1800s sport was increasingly tied to the spread of so-called modern, European culture and its evolving recreational practices. These practices came to Latin America mainly with British, French, and, later (mostly around the Caribbean), North American businessmen, diplomats, missionaries, teachers, soldiers, sailors, and others, as well as with Latin Americans who studied on either side of the North Atlantic. They became part of the schools and the social and athletic clubs opened by foreigners and of similar institutions built by progressive locals who gradually displaced the foreigners as leaders of the sporting community. These newer, imported sports spread from capital cities and major ports into secondary cities and eventually rural areas. Consequently, most popular sports in Latin America in the early twenty-first century have little connection with traditional or colonial society, and even less with pre-Columbian civilizations.

Modernization altered the recreational landscape: patolli (a Mexican indigenous board game similar to Parcheesi), pato (an Argentine gaucho sport best described as basketball on horseback), cockfighting, tejo (stones are tossed underhand to explode blasting caps set on a target at the end of a measured path—played mostly in Colombia), sortija (riders on horseback try to place a needle through a hanging ring—seen in Argentina), and other preindustrial games and sports either disappeared or survived regionally in modified forms. Patolli has become virtually nonexistent; tejo, often accompanied by heavy drinking, is a game of lower-class mestizos; pato has moved from the rural pampa to enclaves of upper-class urban whites. Cockfighting, legal in some countries, remains popular in the entire circum-Caribbean area, less so farther south.


The British amateur ideal did not prevail for long in Latin America, as the desire to improve performance led to longer practice sessions, salaries, and the acceptance of lower-class and darker-skinned players. Also, the increase in free time enabled workers to become recreational athletes and spectators, and paid admission, souvenir sales, and broadcasting rights boosted profits. Soccer, for example, allowed partial salaries—often paid under the table and labeled "brown money"—for about three decades before embracing full professionalization in the early 1930s, a move that caused major conflict between those administrators who favored the change and those who wished to keep the sport amateur. In the early twenty-first century, soccer and auto racing are highly professional, baseball and cycling are both amateur and professional, basketball and tennis are slightly but increasingly professional, and volleyball and swimming remain entirely amateur. Yet even amateur sports require structure and capital investment and carry with them the concomitant features of modern sports: rationalization, standardization, specialization, bureaucratization, and internationalization. They also enhance the sales of equipment.

Professionalization also encouraged unionization, codification of contract law, and welfare legislation for players. In truth, despite higher selective player incomes, at least in soccer, baseball, and boxing, such efforts protect few athletes from exploitation, and confrontations such as Argentina's soccer strike of 1948 and the Mexican baseball players' protest of the early 1980s have tended to end in failure for the athletes.


By the twentieth century, soccer (Spanish: fútbol; Portuguese: futebol) had become the preferred participant and spectator sport, a reflection of its intrinsic sportive qualities and its ties with British society and the values that it represented. As Cubans have done with baseball and West Indians with cricket, some Latin Americans adapted soccer, a sport of white foreigners, turning it into an anticolonial force to establish their dominion, if only symbolic, over those who previously (or continually) dominated them. Through 2006, Latin Americans have won the World Cup nine times: Uruguay in 1930 and 1950; Brazil in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002; and Argentina in 1978 and 1986. Brazil is the only country to have played in all eighteen Cups between 1930 and 2006. In addition, Latin Americans support regional tournaments such as the Copa América (played since 1917) for national teams and the Copa Libertadores de América (created in 1960) for club champions, the winner of which each year plays the European Page 930  |  Top of Articleclub champion in Tokyo's Toyota Cup. They also participate in world and inter-American competitions for youth teams. Success in soccer enhances, however briefly, national pride and identification. Unfortunately, soccer has not escaped the illegal narcotics scourge, as half of Colombia's clubs are reported to be owned by persons with drug connections; drug money is laundered through soccer deals and salaries, and individuals such as Argentina's heralded soccer hero of the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona, have fallen victim to drug usage.


Soccer's popularity is not unchallenged, however. In the Spanish-speaking circum-Caribbean, including Mexico's Yucatán, baseball (béisbol) has been the "king of sports" for almost a century because of its leisurely pace, low cost, and association with more powerful societies. As early as the 1870s, baseball had numerous Cuban enthusiasts who joined North Americans in spreading the diamond game among their neighbors. Eventually Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia became at least partial supporters of the Yankee pastime, all of them leaping into international competitions and exporting stars to northern professional leagues. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have each won the world series of amateur baseball at least once. After 1959 Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela replaced Cuba as the primary sources of Latin American talent in the majors. San Pedro de Macorís, on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, has supplied more players per capita to the major leagues than any city in the world. Because of its own legal code, Mexico has not exported a substantial number of players, despite the stardom of Fernando Valenzuela in the 1980s. (At the age of forty-five, Valenzuela, "El Toro," played in 2006 with his son, Fernando Jr., "El Torito," on the Mexicali Eagles of the Mexican Pacific League.)

Since Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson reintegrated U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) in the mid-1940s, the American pastime has been progressively Latinized. On opening day in 2006, 190 (23.4 percent) of the 813 players on MLB rosters were born in Latin America: 85 Dominicans, 43 Venezuelans, 33 Puerto Ricans, 14 Mexicans, 6 Cubans, 4 Panamanians, 2 Colombians, and 1 each from Nicaragua, Aruba, and Curaçao; even more were under contract
Young Venezuelan baseball player. Introduced by U.S. oil workers in the 1920s, baseball is now Venezuelas most popular sport. Young Venezuelan baseball player. Introduced by U.S. oil workers in the 1920s, baseball is now Venezuela's most popular sport. © 1997 BY HENRY HORENSTEIN. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF HARCOURT, INC. in the minors. Surely this trend would be enhanced if U.S.-Cuban relations became normalized, though it might be somewhat tempered by the expanding pool of Asian talent. Surely the stardom and wealth gained by a few Latinos raises the national pride of their countrymen. But some American academics, such as Alan Klein and Milton Jamail, ask if this benefits or exploits the marginal societies that see another of their resources depleted by the capitalist center. Similar questions have been raised about the out-migration of soccer, cricket, and basketball talent.


Latin America has produced numerous world champions in boxing, especially in the lighter weight Page 931  |  Top of Articledivisions. The best known include Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilán, and "Mantequilla" Nápoles (Cuba); Rodrigo Valdés and Kid Pambelé (Colombia); Carlos Monzón and Pascual Pérez (Argentina); Alexis Argüello (Nicaragua); Al Brown, Luis Ibarra, and Roberto Durán (Panama); Félix Trinidad (Puerto Rico); Juan Guzmán (Dominican Republic); Vicente Rondón (Venezuela); and Julio César Chávez (Mexico), who in 1994, after ninety fights and three world titles, was knocked out and defeated, both for the first time. In the early twenty-first century Cuba rules the amateur sphere at the Pan-American Games, Olympics, world boxing tournaments, and binational competitions with the United States. Individually best known has been heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who dominated the Olympics in the 1970s and later successfully coached his national team; less idolized internationally has been Félix Savón, who built a record similar to Stevenson's.

A new generation of boxing champions includes Brazilian light heavyweight Acelino "Popo" Freitas, Mexicans Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, and Nicaraguan welterweight Ricardo "El Matador" Mayorga, though in 2006–2007 he had numerous run-ins with the law. Also rising to prominence in the sport are Puerto Rican welterweight Miguel Cotto, Colombian junior welterweight Ricardo Torres, Panamanian super bantamweight Celestino "Pelechín" Caballero, Puerto Rican strawweight Ivan Calderón, and Argentine flyweight Omar Andrés Narváez. The list goes on, especially considering that there are at least five sanctioning bodies declaring champions in seventeen weight divisions.


Basketball spread initially via teachers and students, although more recently it has benefited from the televising of National Basketball Association games and high-level international competitions. Goodwill tours by such U.S. stars as Earvin (Magic) Johnson have raised interest and skills. In most countries basketball is an important part of the school physical education and recreation programs, and Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico have developed strong national teams. Uruguay has a limited professional league. Argentina hosted and won basketball's first world championship in 1950.

That the quality of basketball in some parts of Latin America has risen substantially since the mid-
Basketball match at the FIBA World Champtionship games between the Brazilian and United States womens teams, Sydney, Australia, 1994. Though soccer and baseball dominate, the sport of basketball in Latin America has won new fans and players. Basketball match at the FIBA World Champtionship games between the Brazilian and United States women's teams, Sydney, Australia, 1994. Though soccer and baseball dominate, the sport of basketball in Latin America has won new fans and players. At the 2004 Olympics, Puerto Rico and Argentina beat the highly acclaimed U.S. team. The U.S. NBA continues to draw from the region's talented tool of players. KENNY RODGER/ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES 1990s or earlier or more is seen in two developments. First, men's teams have been increasingly successful in international competition. Argentina finished second at the World Championship in 2002 and fourth in 2006. In between they won the Olympic gold medal at Athens in 2004. At the end of 2006 the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) ranked Argentina fourth in the world; Brazil ranked seventeenth and Panama twenty-first. Puerto Rico remained highly competitive in all contests in the Western Hemisphere.

A second indicator of Latin America's rising basketball status is the success of the region's players in foreign countries at the highest professional levels. Arguably the brightest Latino star of the new millennium is Emanuel "Manu" Ginóbili, a native of Bahía Blanca, Argentina, who led his national team to those international triumphs, but Page 932  |  Top of Articlewas also an integral part of the San Antonio Spurs, who with Ginóbili won the NBA title in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Other prominent Latin Americans in the NBA have been Mexican Eduardo Nájera, who played college ball at Oklahoma and has been backup with three professional teams; St. Vincent and the Grenadines native Adonal Foyle, who graduated from Colgate University and has played center for the Golden State Warriors; Argentine Andrés Nocioni, who made an early impact on the Chicago Bulls; Brazilian Maybyner Rodney Hilário, who made the NBA All-Rookie first team after his first season with the Denver Nuggets; and Fabricio Oberto, Ginóbili's teammate on the Argentine national team and the 2007 Spurs championship squad. At least since "Butch" Lee left Marquette University for the NBA in the late 1970s, numerous Puerto Ricans have contributed to U.S. professional ball.


Volleyball, carried worldwide by YMCA workers, has gained less acceptance, although Brazil and Cuba have done well internationally, as have the Peruvian women, and beach varieties of the game have won adherents in some places. The beaches of Rio de Janeiro are daily the venue for a lively, coeducational game that combines the ball and some rules from soccer with the net and rules of volleyball.

Bullfighting and other Iberian sports remain most viable in countries where the European colonial presence was strongest and later immigration did less to alter the inherited traditions. Thus Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela have the leading taurine establishments. Mexico, some Andean countries, and Cuba have long promoted jai alai; as in Florida, it is usually accompanied by vigorous gambling.

Latin American tennis stars have increasingly populated world rankings since the late 1950s and early 1960s, the glory days of Anita Linzana (Chile), Pancho Segura (Ecuador), Pancho González (Mexican American), Rafael Osuna (Mexico), and Maria Bueno (Brazil). Beginning in the 1970s such stars as Guillermo Vilas (Argentina), Alex Olmedo (Peru), Andrés Gómez (Ecuador), and Gabriela Sabatini (Argentina) emerged, and their successes promoted tennis as a recreational activity
Shelda Bede, Brazilian beach volleyball player diving to return ball in a 2004 semifinal match, Rio de Janeiro. Volleyball, a more recent sport in Latin America, continues to grow in popularity and strength. Shelda Bede, Brazilian beach volleyball player diving to return ball in a 2004 semifinal match, Rio de Janeiro. Volleyball, a more recent sport in Latin America, continues to grow in popularity and strength. Brazil's women's team won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic games and the men won gold. Argentina finished fifth. As of late 2007, the Brazilan men's volleyball team was ranked #1 internationally. ANTONIO SCORZA/GETTY IMAGES for a limited middle class in their home countries. Bridging the turn of the century, several younger South Americans have entered the spotlight. The often moody and erratic Chilean Marcelo Ríos never won a Grand Slam, but in 1998 he became the first Latino male to be ranked number one. At Athens in 2004 his countrymen Nicolás Massú and Fernando González teamed up to win the doubles gold; in addition Massú won the singles gold, his partner the bronze. In December 2006 the Page 933  |  Top of Article
Venezuelan tennis player Maria Vento-Kabchi at the Central American and Caribbean Games, Maracaibo, Venezuela, 1998. Venezuelan tennis player Maria Vento-Kabchi at the Central American and Caribbean Games, Maracaibo, Venezuela, 1998. AP IMAGES Argentines, led by eleventh-ranked David Nalbandian, lost 3-2 to the Russians in the Davis Cup finals, after trouncing Australia 5-0 in the semis. González reemerged to finish second at the 2007 Australian Open.


Despite the long careers and celebrity in the United States of Roberto De Vincenzo (Argentina), Juan "Chi-Chi" Rodrígues (Puerto Rico), and Tex-Mex Lee Treviño, golf sparked minimal interest in Latin America, and few from the region earned international recognition. Even after 2000 no males had premier global status until Argentine Angel Cabrera won the 2007 U.S. Open Championship. The surprising achievements of several females, however, are changing the environment: Colombian María Isabel Baena earned a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where she won ten matches and the NCAA individual championship in 1996. In 2005 she won the HSBC World Match Play Championship on the LPGA tour and gained national recognition back home. In November 2006 the twenty-year-old Paraguayan Julieta Granada entered golf's history books, winning the ADT Championship, played under an unusual format, and $1 million.

Two strokes behind Granada that day was the real star of 2006, Mexican Lorena Ochoa, the LPGA Player of the Year and the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Another University of Arizona scholarship player and twice NCAA champion, Ochoa in 2006 won six titles, nearly $2.6 million, and the Vare Trophy for lowest average scores (69.24). She also led the tour in eagles, birdies, rounds in the 60s, and times in top ten. By June 2007 Ochoa was ranked number one on the LPGA Tour. She has made a few Mexicans at least think outside the soccer stadium.

In addition, countries such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands are courting big-spending foreign tourists with designer links and upscale resorts. In the Los Cabos region of Mexico's southern Baja California, exclusive courses, some designed by players Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones, charge green fees of U.S. $250-300 and host PGA players needing practice time. In several countries gated communities and middle-class country clubs now include golf courses for an expanding professional sector. Thanks to these developments there is available in 2007, at least in Mexico, access to the Golf Channel and a large, slick monthly golf magazine, Caras Golf, which began publication in late 2005.

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Perhaps because of their early industrialization, Argentina and Brazil embraced auto racing, both track and open-road, and produced international champions such as Argentina's Juan Manuel Fangio and Oscar Gálvez and Brazil's Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, and Ayrton Senna. Colombia's Roberto Guerrero joined the Indianapolis car circuit in the 1980s. Another successful Colombian, Juan Pablo Montoya, switched from Formula One to NASCAR's Nextel Cup competition in 2006–2007 and gained stature when he drove with his Chip Ganassi Racing team to victory in the January 2007 Rolex 24 Daytona sports car endurance race and later won a USA Busch Series road race in Mexico City and his first NEXTEL Cup triumph at California's Infineon Raceway in June. NASCAR's Busch Series has established a separate Mexican operation that includes the fourteen-race Desafío Corona and extensive broadcasting and marketing of NASCAR events and products. And Mexico's Baja, since 1967, has been home of the granddaddy of desert races, run normally in November out of Ensenada. Even women, such as Colombians Juliana González and María Isabel Cajiao, have entered competitive racing from Go Kart through street vehicles to Formula Ford.


Cycling, an early import from Europe because of its ties with technology, exercise, and French leisure, has been more prominent in mountainous countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Premier national events in their respective countries are La Vuelta a Colombia (begun in 1951 and now named for Pilsen, its principal sponsor), La Vuelta a Costa Rica (begun in 1965), and La Vuelta a Venezuela (run over forty times). Several Latin Americans, especially Colombians, have gained recognition on the European circuit, including the three grand tours, but none has ever dominated.

Latin Americans also support track and field, horse racing (in areas under British influence, horses run clockwise on grass), field hockey, swimming, handball and related court ball games (many derived from those various old Basque sports or pelota vasca), and chess (which is considered a sport in the region and was led for years by the Cuban grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca). In the Southern Cone, thanks again to British influence, rugby is a notable scholastic and recreational sport, especially in Argentina, whose national squad, the Pumas, have gained midlevel international status. Polo, an elitist sport, long ago took root in the Argentine pampa, where it has produced the world's most dominant teams for more than half a century.

Recreational activities such as hiking, camping, jogging, survivalism, boating, and sport fishing have become popular. Yacht and powerboat racing are found along many coasts and on large lakes, as are surfboarding and waterskiing. A similar spread of the martial arts was witnessed at the XV Panamerican Taekwando Championship held in Buenos Aires in late 2006; leading medal winners among the Latin Americans were the Mexicans, Brazilians, and Argentines. Professional wrestling (lucha libre) has achieved popularity, especially among Mexico's working classes; "good guys" and "bad guys" appear publicly and wrestle in colorful full-body, masked costumes (as can be seen in the 2006 Jack Black film Nacho Libre).

From the above mix, the one with the greatest international spectator and economic appeal may be horse racing. Building on the legacies of Puerto Rican Angel Cordero and Panamanian Laffit Pincay, both members of the racing Hall of Fame, a younger generation of Latino turf stars has entered the scene. Peruvian Edgar Prado (b. 1967) in 1997 became the fourth rider to win five hundred races in one year and has since won two Belmont Stakes and one Kentucky Derby (on the horse Barbaro in 2006). Panamanian Fernando Jara (b. 1987) in 2006 won both the Belmont and America's richest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic, the latter on Invasor, a four-year-old bred in Argentina but trained mainly in Uruguay, where he was named 2006 Horse of the Year; Invasor has won nine of ten career starts. In the United States he is surely the best known Latin American horse since Cañonero II, bred in Kentucky but raised and initially raced in Venezuela, won two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 1971. Puerto Rican Johnny Velázquez (b. 1971) rode Rags to Riches, the first filly ever to win the Belmont Stakes (2007).

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Argentinas national womens field hockey team, 1996. The Argentine team is one of the worlds best field hockey teams, winning a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games and a bronze in 2004. Argentina's national women's field hockey team, 1996. The Argentine team is one of the world's best field hockey teams, winning a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games and a bronze in 2004. KARL-HEINZ KREIFELTZ/AP IMAGES


American football has gained greater spectator interest with the spread of cable and satellite television, as has the Super Bowl as an excuse to party even among people who neither understand nor like the sport. Only in Mexico (and in the former Panama Canal Zone), however, has it recruited a noticeable number of scholastic participants, beginning as early as the 1930s. National Football League (NFL) games are widely televised in Mexico and covered in the local press; the NFL has scheduled several preseason games there since the 1980s. This interest reflects the fact that several Mexican Americans and Mexicans have played and coached successfully in the United States. Fans in earlier decades applauded the work of place kickers Rafael Septién and Raú l Allegre, quarterback Jim Plunkett, and coach Tom Flores.

In the new century the NFL features several former stars at Monterrey Tech, for several years the best team in Mexico's top American football league. Rolando Cantú is an offensive guard with the Arizona Cardinals; Luis Berlanga kicked briefly in 2006 for the San Francisco 49ers. In January 2007 the Kansas City Chiefs signed Monterrey native Ramiro Pruneda, a massive offensive lineman, to a two-year contract in hopes of developing him into a standout player.

A few non-Mexican Latinos have played college ball in the United States and connected with the NFL: José Cortez (El Salvador), kicker for several teams, and defensive lineman Luis Castillo of Dominican origin, starter for San Diego. Ron Rivera, his father a Puerto Rican career military officer, his mother Mexican, won a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears in 1985 and as defensive coordinator helped them return to Super Bowl XLI. At least three other Puerto Ricans have played in the NFL.


Participants and spectators alike have been increasingly influenced by forces directed by private and Page 936  |  Top of Articlepublic agencies seeking to use sport and recreation, including physical culture and education, for larger economic and political objectives: to teach constructive values, improve health and morality, increase labor productivity, reduce vice and crime, develop a sense of community and cooperation, promote patriotism and nationalism, attract foreign investment, and improve a nation's image abroad—objectives often aimed at social control as much as social development. These goals have been pursued by (1) the establishment of domestic physical education programs, sports competitions, and permanent institutions necessary to oversee athletic programs; (2) the preparation of individuals and teams capable of competing successfully at the international level; and (3) the hosting of international sporting events.

Examples of the overt use or abuse of sports for political reasons include the Guatemalan government's promotion of the Sixth Central American and Caribbean Games (1950) to enhance the Aré-valo-Arbenz revolutionary program; in Chile, the efforts of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship after September 1973 to suppress all sports clubs and events that might give voice to suspected critics and protesters; and the attempt by the ruling Brazilian military in 1970 to exploit their country's third soccer World Cup victory to strengthen its authoritarian rule and similar actions by the Argentine military in hosting and winning the 1978 Mundial.


All Latin American countries have, however ineffective and poorly funded, some version of an integrated national sports federation (such as Chile's Digeder, Colombia's Coldeportes, Cuba's Inder, and Mexico's Conade), national associations for most sports, Olympic organizing committees, a physical education institute, and periodic "national games" at different age levels. The professional leagues are usually separate entities. Overlapping these organizations are expanding linkages to international networks. Latin Americans began to join Olympic competitions in 1900, and FIFA, soccer's governing body founded in 1904, in 1913. In 1922, on the centenary of its independence, Brazil organized the now defunct South American Games; in 1926, encouraged by the Olympic leadership in Paris in 1924, Mexico hosted the first Central American and Caribbean Games; the more limited Central American Games started in Guatemala in 1973; in 1938, on the four-hundredth anniversary of the founding of its capital, Colombia initiated the Bolivarian Games. In 1951 Juan Perón's Argentina inaugurated the Pan-American Games, a competition likewise encouraged by the Olympic leadership as early as the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and originally scheduled for Buenos Aires in 1942. A smaller winter version of the Pan-American Games was launched in 1990 but, because of the lack of snow and support, soon faltered.

Uruguay hosted and won the first soccer World Cup (Mundial) in 1930, after winning the previous two Olympic gold medals in that sport. Brazil (1950), Chile (1962), Mexico (1970, 1986), and Argentina (1978) have also hosted the World Cup, which is the largest sporting event in the world other than the Olympics. Brazil is a strong favorite to host again in 2014. Mexico was the first developing country to sponsor the Summer Olympics (1968), an event marred by domestic political violence and the death and disappearance of numerous students and workers shortly before the torch arrived, but which the government cited as proof of Mexico's progress and international acceptance.

In addition to the competitive encounters and organizational ties, the growing internationalization of sports has generated increased migration of players and coaches within Latin America and to and from Europe and North America, as well as sales of foreign sporting equipment and televised sporting events. Building on a tradition that dates back to the 1930s, for example, more than four hundred Argentine soccer players were estimated to be playing in other countries in 1992. (Some of the better Argentine basketball players are also now spending time in European, especially Italian, leagues.) This is part of a larger global pattern that sees athletic talent follow the money from marginal areas and clubs to wealthier and more powerful centers in the larger cities of the richer countries, eventually, in the early twenty-first century, arriving in Western Europe or North America.


Prior to 1959 Cuba had won numerous Olympic medals (the first in 1900), produced skilled Page 937  |  Top of Articleprofessional boxers such as Kid Tunero and Kid Chocolate, and sent more baseball players to the U.S. major leagues than any foreign country. But critics then and since have contended that the Cuban sports structure, like that of other Latin American countries, was elitist, sexist, and too responsive to external monetary pressures. Following the revolution, Cuba eliminated open professionalism, increased its Olympic medal count (to thirty-one at Barcelona in 1992, for example), and built a balanced program of mass physical culture superior to any other in Latin America. However, some forty Cuban athletes defected during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico in 1993, suggesting that dissatisfaction runs high even among the privileged, a conviction reaffirmed by the similar flight of an increasing number of players from Cuba's Pan-American, world amateur, and Olympic championship baseball team, many of whom—including brothers Liván and Orlando "El Duque" Hernández—have signed professional contracts in North America. A number of these received help in defecting to the United States and in signing those contracts from the controversial agent Joe Cubas.

Before Barcelona, probably Cuba's greatest international sporting achievement occurred at the eleventh Pan American Games (1991), hosted by the island nation. Under severe economic and political difficulties, the Cubans provided the facilities for 4,519 athletes from thirty-nine countries and won ten more gold medals than did the United States (140 to the U.S.'s 130), although the total medal count favored the United States (352 to Cuba's 265). Since 1991–1992 Cuba has continued to be among the top three medal winners at the Pan American Games and among the top eleven at the Olympics; relative to population it is almost certainly number one in the world.

From the 2003 Pan American Games (Dominican Republic), Cubans carried home 270 total medals, 117 of them gold; that was second only to the United States, with 152 and 72. As a result, through the fourteen Pan Am Games, Cuba, with 1,658 total medals, of these 309 gold, ranks behind only the Americans with 3,679 and 1,651.

At the 2004 Summer Olympics (Greece), Cubans captured 27 total medals, 9 of them gold. At the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games (Colombia), they won the most total medals (285) and the most gold (138); Mexico, with seven times or more the population of Cuba, was a respectable second with 275 and 107.


Cuba has been nearly as successful in developing female champions as male, although critics of the Castro system still identify sexist, as well as racist, qualities in the Cuban sports system. Women from other Latin American countries have achieved somewhat less than the Cubans, in part because their societies value women athletes less and provide less support, though those attitudes are changing in the new century. Earlier exceptions included Neomí Simonetto (long jump, Argentina), Marlene Ahrens (javelin throw, Chile), Silvia Poll (swimming, Costa Rica), and the tennis stars cited above. The 1988 Olympic Games displayed the continuing prowess of the Peruvian women's volleyball team, which took the silver medal.

In addition to the women golfers discussed above, competitive international athletes have emerged in unusual places. At the Sydney Olympics (2000) Colombian María Isabel Urrutia and Mexican Soraya Jiménez won gold in weightlifting. The latter's retirement has brought forth Carolina Valencia, who won three gold medals at the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games. Gold from the 1991 World Championships and silver from the Athens Olympics belong to multiple-champion Ana Gabriela Guevara (Mexico), who specializes in the 400-meter and 4 × 400 relay. Women throughout the region are playing soccer, though as of 2006 only the Brazilians were close to world class. Cuban and Brazilian women are superior in beach volleyball.


Sports' importance in Latin American society is reflected in the use of sport jargon in the ordinary language and of sport themes in artistic expressions. Politicians often "move pieces on the board" in hopes of "getting to the head of the pack" in order to "score more goals," whereas great writers have long used play and game settings to convey their ideas—for example, Argentina's Julio Cortázar (boxing) and Chile's Antonio Skármeta (cycling, soccer, and tennis). Increasingly authors depict sport as physical activity rather than spectacle, thus providing Page 938  |  Top of Articlea means to represent social and psychological conflicts among literary characters. This is evident in the boxing plays of Eduardo Pavlosky (Argentina) and Vicente Leñero (Mexico) and the novels of Isaac Goldemberg (soccer, Peru) and José Agustín (baseball, Mexico). An introduction to the extensive repertoire of sports-related short stories is found in the volumes edited by Jorge Valdano, who himself played with Argentina's World Cup victors in 1986.

Although originally the language of many sports was built on the Latinized pronunciation of imported, usually English terms ("golf," "round," "football," "fly"), Spanish and Portuguese linguistic inventions have been replacing many foreign words (boxeo for "boxing"; gol for "goal"; arquero for "goalie"), or reasonable translations have been identified (fuera de lugar for "offside"; tiro de esquina for "corner"; lanzador for "pitcher"; el cuarto bate for "cleanup hitter"; árbitro for "referee"; baloncesto for "basquet ball"). The importance of games and sports in the lives of Latin Americans is further evident in the success of sports periodicals of the quality of El Gráfico (Argentina), Placar (Brazil), the extensive sports sections in the daily newspapers, and the explosion of weekly and monthly specialized magazines aimed at both players of all levels and spectators.


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                                     JOSEPH L. ARBENA

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3078905268