Today, August 13, 2004, the greatest worldwide celebration will return to the country of its birth, Greece, and the site of the first modern Games held in 1896, Athens, raising hopes of restoring the harmony, peace and nobility in humanity that the Games are intended to showcase. In these Summer Olympic Games, 10,500 athletes from 202 countries will perform in 28 sports. Every Latin American country will participate in the Summer Games, as well as 17 Caribbean nations, including Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, which is emblematic of the region’s increasing role in today’s sports world.
To Athens Via South America
Although Latin America has always sent athletes to the Olympic Games, the region has often been overlooked when it comes to the ceremonies associated with the Games. The grand tradition of the Olympic Torch Relay?in which the official Olympic flame is passed from world leader to star athlete or famed movie star as it is run across nations and continents?stopped in South America for the first time before traveling to Mexico City, the United States, Canada and back to Greece.
The design of this year’s Olympic Torch was inspired by an olive branch, the symbol that the Athens Games committee felt best captures the ideals that the Games represent. On June 13, 2004, this emblem of peace was carried through the streets of Rio de Janeiro by an overjoyed and teary-eyed Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to fans across the world as Pelé, the Brazilian-born soccer superstar who became the world’s highest paid athlete when he joined the North American Soccer League in 1975. After Pelé, the torch was passed from one sports legend to another in a celebration full of Brazilian customs and colors.
From Rio, the flame traveled to the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City where the Games were hosted in Latin America for the first time in 1968. Enriqueta Basilio, the Mexican hurdler who became the first woman to ever light the Olympic cauldron in 1968, was once again honored with the flame as the first of 122 Torchbearers, who then passed the sacred flame onto Los Angeles and the United States.
Atletas de Oro: A History
The first Latin American medals were won in the third Games in 1904, when the Cubans took home every medal except one in the fencing competition. In Paris in 1924, the Uruguayan soccer team won their first of two Olympic gold medals.
In the decades that followed, as the world witnessed one tragedy after another and international relations became entangled in war, both male and female Latin Americans continued to compete. To date, Argentina leads Latin America in the Olympic medal count with 54?13 gold?followed by Mexico and Brazil with 47 and 35 medals, respectively. In total, 12 Latin American countries won medals in the last century. Their athletes have medaled in sports as diverse as basketball, diving, shooting and sailing.
Latin America’s Shining Stars
A strong team of Latin American boxers hope to continue their historic domination of the sport. Regional boxers have won nearly 50 medals in the modern Olympics, led by Cuba, which has taken home 44 boxing medals since Munich in 1972. The Cubans hope that their team will once again bring back the gold. After winning four boxing medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, they are looking for gold in all 11 divisions of the sport. Behind the Cubans are five Mexican boxers hoping to medal in at least three divisions.
In addition to boxing, the Cubans are favored to win the gold in baseball. Since the U.S. team, a long-time favorite and intense Cuban rival, failed to qualify for the Games, Cuba and Japan are expected to face-off for gold in Athens. In recent months, the two rivals have competed three times: Cuba and Japan each won once, while the third game ended in a tie. Hopes run high in Havana that the depth of the Cuban team will overcome the Japanese during the coming weeks.
Soccer?or fútbol?is perhaps Latin America’s biggest sport, in terms of the passion and universality that the game fosters. Easily the most popular event of the Olympics, nearly 1 million tickets for the soccer competition have been sold. In this year’s Games, Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina and Costa Rica will compete against eight other qualifying teams in the men’s bracket. Argentina?a country with one of the longest traditions of the sport?is expected to come up against Italy in the men’s finals, hopefully to bring home its first Olympic gold medal in soccer.
In the first Olympic round in Athens on August 11, Argentina took its first step toward gold with a solid 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro. The following day, Paraguay came up with a 4-3 win over Japan. As a result, Argentina and Paraguay, along with Iraq, currently lead the men’s competition with three points each. Close behind are Mexico and Costa Rica, whose first games against Mali and Morocco, respectively, ended in scoreless draws. After tonight’s opening ceremonies, men’s soccer will continue tomorrow when Argentina takes on Tunisia and Mexico faces Korea. Sunday could see two more Latin American wins as Paraguay plays its second game against Ghana while Costa Rica faces the Iraqi men.
The women’s teams from Mexico and Brazil hope to dominate the eight other competitors. In the final gold medal game, women’s soccer fans expect to see the strong Brazilian team?which won their first-round game against Australia on Wednesday in a close 1-0 match?and the heavily publicized Team USA, which already beat Greece 3-0. Tomorrow, the two favorites will set the tone for the remainder of the tournament as they face-off against each other, while Mexico plays its first match of the Games against China.
In addition to these top teams, every country has its favorite national athlete. Nicaraguan-born, three-time world record breaker Claudia Poll, who won Costa Rica’s first Olympic gold medal in 1996, said that, in Athens, she will “give it her all” when she once again swims for gold. With over 125 athletes, Argentina?the Latin American powerhouse with the largest 2004 Olympic team?will look for medals from its squad of 12 men and women competing in the tennis events. Chile’s Fernando González also hopes to earn a medal in tennis, while Mexico is looking for at least 11 medals from its 114 athletes. Brazil?the only team in the world that has qualified for every Olympic tournament since volleyball became an official sport?hopes to take advantage of its experience and depth with a strong performance; the women’s team is expected to face the U.S. women in the finals. Peruvian shooter and ’84 silver medalist Francisco Boza will go for another Olympic medal, and his young teammate, Lorena Blanco, hopes to do well in the badminton competition.
The Shadow of Terror
Latin American athletes have left their countries’ economic and political problems behind for Athens only to find themselves immersed in today’s greater worldwide controversies. In the wake of September 11, Athens is taking security very seriously. Host country Greece is spending more than four times the amount spent for security at the Sydney Games to ensure the safety of the participants, coaches, spectators and workers at the Olympics from the ground, sky and water. There will be at least 75,000 military and police personnel on the ground, 120 strategically-placed patriot missiles, 500 military vehicles and 50 naval ships. Additional U.S. forces?including at least 100 FBI and State Department personnel?will be stationed in Athens, many of whom will accompany athletes from all over the world as they travel to and from events. Moreover, clearance to the sky 28 miles around Athens will be given only to authorized aircraft, and airspace directly over each Olympic venue has been declared a complete no-fly zone that will be patrolled 24 hours a day. In total, Greek fighter pilots will monitor the skies for over 1,200 hours throughout the Olympic and Paralympic competitions, at a cost of approximately $3,614 per hour.
In today’s controversial world, security has become such a serious issue that this year’s competition may be overshadowed by intensifying global conflicts. Latin America’s outstanding athletes, however, will serve their countries with pride in Athens in hopes of bringing to life the ideals of the Olympic Games.