For an athlete wishing to pursue the Olympic dream, it is essential for every country or State (be it Puerto Rico, Andorra, Kosovo, France or China) to have an organization authorized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The local affiliate is responsible for the logisitics, and is the only one authorized to register the athletes headed for the podium, which in the case of the land of Juan Pablo Duarte, is the Dominican Olympic Committee.
Until early 1940, the Dominican sports menu rested mainly on baseball (introduced in the country late in the 19TH century), basketball (introduced in 1911 by Salvador Cocco Pastoriza, a Puerto Plata native) and horseback riding. Dominican sport was a headless, disperse structure. In fact, the first National Sports Games, held in 1937 in Ciudad Trujillo, required the passing of Law 1272, which established the norms and assigned an organizing committee.
The first multi-sports event in the country aroused interest in other disciplines, and in 1943, the government created the Dirección General de Deportes (General Sports Management Department) which would oversee promoting, developing, ruling, organizing and managing the activities that combined mind and muscle, with Frank Hatton as its first manager.
Dominican aspirations for a sports event in the Olympic cycle could only realistically focus on the Central American and Caribbean Games, which were held for the first time in 1926 in the Mexican Federal District, and which were scheduled to host their fifth editions in Barranquilla, Colombia.
The event organizers in the land of coffee, invited the Dominicans in mid-1945, but the DGD (General Sports Management Department) found an obstacle since the country did not have a National Olympic Committee recognized by the International Olympic Committee, which made it impossible to register the athletes for the games. To expedite the process, the DGD created a management commission on December 7TH, 1945, which would be called Comité Olímpico Nacional “CON” (National Olympic Committee), on a provisional basis and headed by Braulio A. Méndez.
On January 28TH, 1946 the CON was created on a permanent basis with Hatton as president, Méndez as vice-president, Enrique Ripley as secretary general, Humberto Gómez Olivier as treasurer while Máximo Llavería Martí, Manuel Neftalí Tafneli, Rogelio Lamarche Soto, Juan Bautista Lamarche, Luis A. Vicioso and Néstor González were members. Leoh León Sturla and Fernando Vicioso completed the team as consultants.
This was the birth of what we know today as the Dominican Olympic Committee. The country participated in Barranquilla along with 12 other nations and won their first medals (7 in total), 4 gold, 2 silver and a bronze. Law 3492 passed in 1953, and institutionalized the CON in the country, headed by Luis Ruíz Trujillo, but it was not recognized by the IOC until May 26TH, 1954.
Dominicans made their official debut in the 1959 Chicago Pan American Games, and celebrated it with a gold medal in baseball, with a team that featured players such as Felipe Rojas Alou and Julián Javier who would later become Major League stars.
By the fall of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s government in 1961, however, the country had not yet attained a great sports culture. The Dominican Olympic Committee (COD) assumed a more proactive role and focused its attention on taking the country to more important competitions, to stimulate youngsters to embrace sports. On February 10TH, 1962, seven federations celebrated elections to choose the COD’s first executive committee. Dr. Emil Kasse Acta, a pediatrician who also presided the Escogido Lions Baseball Club, headed this 12 member board that would resign four months later, on June 25TH, due to internal differences.
Two days later, the State Council headed by Rafael F. Bonnelly, passed Law 5976 which declared the COD independent from the State. A new executive committee was elected headed by Juan Ulises García Saleta “Wiche”, who led the committee for three periods until 1974 and who is considered the father of the Dominican Olympic movement. Since its emergence in the Dominican arena, the COD has promoted events and initiatives that have contributed to winning seven Olympic medals since the country’s first appearance in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, when sprinter Alberto “El Gringo” Torres lead the way in the world’s main sports celebration until Luisito Pie today. The country has won 204 medals in the Pan American Games ranking 10TH in the continent, and 779 in the Central American and Caribbean Games, holding the sixth position in the medal count, despite missing 6 of the 22 editions of the Games.
“SPORTS ARE THE BEST TOOL
TO SUPPORT DOMINICAN YOUTH”
LUIS MEJÍA OVIEDO
García Saleta, who had been involved in sports since he was a child practicing baseball, basketball and tennis, dreamed of seeing the Dominican Republic develop its sports muscles, understood the country needed to host an event which would provide the venues that would motivate youngsters. So, he met with then-president Joaquín Balaguer, and talked to him about building a sports complex in pursuance of hosting the 12TH Central American and Caribbean Games to be held in Santo Domingo in 1974. The President approved his request.
The country was chosen to host the games during the 1970 Central American and Caribbean Games in Panama City. The Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic center was built on a lot where the old General Andrews airport used to stand. Six great venues were built on the 772-square meter lot: The Olympic Stadium, the Velodrome, the Sports Palace, the volleyball and gymnastics pavilions and the Olympic Swimming Pool. Baseball and softball stadiums and open courts for tennis, volleyball and basketball were also built at an estimated cost back then of 20 million Dominican pesos.
“There was great enthusiasm nationwide overall, so that everything would turn out well,” says Dr. José Joaquín Puello, Chairman Ad-vitam of the COD who worked as the attending physician in those games. He remembers: “Sports grew in a general sense, because we started to practice with greater organization and with a better-defined structure.”
Dominicans had won 22 medals in their previous 5 games before the 12TH Central American and Caribbean Games in Santo Domingo. and were close to matching that amount by winning 16.
The country began to reap the fruits of its efforts by winning 8 medals in the 1976 Pan American Games in México City and then increased to 15 medals placing the country 10TH in San Juan 1979, and won 14 more medals in Caracas 1983. In 1976, the country attended the Montreal Olympic Games, with 12 athletes including the first female athlete, sprinter Divina Estrella, making it its biggest delegation up to that point.
Dominican participation in the following Olympic Games in Moscow 1980 was the responsibility of Roque Napoleón Muñoz, who had been elected president of the COD in 1974 and continued chairing it until 1982. He did not agree with the decision of many other countries to boycott the games promoted by the United States amid the Cold War. To get financial support, he appealed to the Olympic spirit and the COD raised the funds on the streets and held raffles to finance the participation of the Dominican delegation. Muñoz has been the only Dominican to become a member of the IOC.
In 1982, José Joaquín Puello Herrera was elected COD president, a position he would hold until 2004 after winning five consecutive elections. After 20 years, the country made its debut in the Olympic medal ranking in 1984 in Los Angeles with the fist of La Romana boxer Pedro Julio Nolasco.
Puello was responsible for staging events such as the Santiago 1986 Central American and Caribbean Games, which provided the central province with a modern sports park. This venue was obtained thanks to the involvement of the Cibao region business sector and “Polón” Muñoz, and it had tremendous impact not only in Santiago but throughout the region.
With two great regional events which promoted sports development, the COD understood that the country should make a greater jump, this time at a continental level, and in the early 90s began to pursue hosting the Pan American Games. The goal was reached on the second attempt to host the 14TH edition of the Games in 2003.
“Each one of these events established a before and after in Dominican sports, starting with us, the COD officials, who began to work in a more organized manner, with our trainers, who acquired the much-needed knowledge to pass on to our athletes, and with the athletes themselves that had to face very high-level rivals in their own country,” Puello Herrera says.
In fact, according to current COD president Luis Mejía, Santo Domingo 2003 has been the most significant sports event in the country. Through a 5.16 billion DOP investment, per the Report of the Games submitted in 2005, the country welcomed more than five thousand athletes from 42 countries.
Part of that investment was destined to upgrade the Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic Center, by building a new aquatics center, the Volleyball Palace, two new precincts and a new building for the Sports Ministry, as well as remodeling the Olympic stadium, the Sports Palace and the Combat Pavilion. In addition, the Parque del Este sports complex was also built with tennis courts, a skating rink, a soccer stadium, field hockey and archery, and sports pavilions for gymnastics, weightlifting, table tennis and handball.
In those games, Dominican Republic finished 9th with the greatest number of medals in its history. The country won 10 gold medals and a total of 41, a record which still stands. This participation left a legacy in terms of orchestration of the games and the athletes. The structure that has produced six of the seven Olympic medals that the country has won, was created.
“The 2003 Pan American Games were the doors that gave way to the golden era, in terms of sports, in the Dominican Republic,” says Mejía, who was the architect in the strategies that led to being chosen to host the games, competing against great cities such as Guadalajara, Medellín and Rio. The then-COD secretary general points out that in the following 10 years, the country sped up the medal production in the different tournaments in which it took part. When a country is the host, it must take part in every event in the games, which means that the country should make a greater financial investment to boost each sport with new venues and trainers, and encourage the practice of new disciplines. “And that was precisely what happened with us,” the COD president adds.
Statistics prove that Mejía, who as an economist, was right, by substantiating his thesis with numbers. Up until 2003, the country had won 80 medals in its prior participation in the Pan American Games from Chicago 1955 to Winnipeg 1999, three gold medals among them. In the following four editions, between Santo Domingo and Toronto 2015, medal production went up to one 127, 26 of which were gold.
After Santo Domingo 2003, came the country’s first Olympic gold medal from the speed of Félix Sánchez (Athens 2004), and that started a streak of four consecutive games reaching the podium. Sánchez was included by the COD and the Ministry of Sports in 1999 for the Pan American Games. The athlete himself defines this support as key for his development.
Later came the chance for medals in the recently created Youth Olympics, with Luguelín and Fanny Chalas (2010), Juan Carlos Solano and María Brugal (2014). After the Pan American Games in the Dominican capital, the COD focused on a policy known as the EA Plan (Europe Asia), which was focused on sending athletes to training bases in these areas of the world, where they also find top-notch competitors. Once this program was adopted, the country reached the podium in four consecutive Olympic Games.
Hosting great sporting events is linked to these results. The National Games left the country with a series of sports parks that serve as platform, so that thousands of youngsters in those communities can train under better circumstances, like what occurred with the Central American and Caribbean Games, as well as the Pan Americans.
As a matter of fact, high-jumper Juana Arrendel was discovered during the San Juan 1992 Games, while the Monte Plata 2006 Games served as motivation for athletes like Luguelín Santos and Luisito Pie.
“Olympic sports is one of the most direct ways of promoting national pride, even in territories that are not considered sovereign countries,” Dr. Puello explains. “Such is the case of Puerto Rico a Commonwealth State. Its people are United State citizens and travel with an American passport, but only through sports are they able to express their feeling as a nation, answering as Puerto Ricans.”
Mejía shared the opinion of the man who preceded him in his position 12 years earlier. “Sports are the best tool to support Dominican youth; it is inconsistently prioritized, but it should be permanent.” Other countries in the region, like Guatemala for example, spend around US$9 million on their athletes’ training for international events, versus the USD$2 million usually spent by the Dominican Republic. Because of that low investment, the different sports federations have reduced their international exposure and attendance to world ranking events, which in many cases ensures positions in the Olympic Games.
The Dominican Olympic Committee hopes to increase official support while maintaining private financial support, and it also seeks to focus on school sports where the foundations of athletic development are established. “We have started to see improvements with the staging of the School Games which are held every two years, because these serve as a platform to evaluate the talent in each city or county,” Mejía says.
With the proper support, those school-age children, who now compete with their fellow countrymen, might become the names that fill the future pages of the Dominican Olympic history. Luguelín Santos and Luisito Pie came from the same school in Bayaguana. These are only two examples of the great potential the country has in its classrooms.
STEPS IN THE OLYMPIC CYCLE
NATIONAL GAMES: It is the entry level in sports, where new talents stand out and prepare for international exposure.
CENTRAL AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN GAMES: Athletes take part in regional games which serve as the platform for measuring future talents.
PAN AMERICAN GAMES: In these Continental Games, the athletes with the highest levels are selected. In some cases, winning these Games directly qualifies the athletes to the Olympics.
WORLD EVENTS: These are generally qualifying events for the Olympic Games. They are high-level competitions and winning a medal there, usually leads the athletes toward an Olympic medal.
PRE-OLYMPIC EVENTS: Where athletes can secure their ticket for the Olympic Games. They are generally viewed as an additional opportunity for those athletes who are not able to qualify for the Olympics via world events or Pan American Games.
OLYMPIC GAMES: They are the completion of the four-year cycle and the most significant sports event worldwide. Medal winners are considered national glories.