The Dominican Republic entered the Olympic Games thanks to sprinter Alberto Torres de la Mota, a native of La Vega, who in spite of being eliminated from competition after recording a 10.8-second finish in the first heat of the 100m dash, will forever be remembered in his country’s sports history.
Forty-eight years later, an 18-year-old young man became proof of the progress and strength of “athletes raised on plaintains” as the popular saying goes. The fire in the strides of Luguelín Santos conquered a silver medal for the country in the 400m dash in London 2012. This victory was celebrated by the 35 members of the delegation that joined him, as well as the 10 million people who saw their flag waving proudly, thousands of kilometers away in the Caribbean.
The Dominican Republic has come a long way to become a contender for medals, which has been achieved in each of the last four editions of the Olympic Games.
The Dominican Olympic Committee (COD) emerged in 1946 as the National Olympic Committee and in 1962 was founded as the COD, two years before the first Dominican worldwide participation. Back then, as it is now, the International Olympic Committee granted Olympic Solidarity funds to national committees to promote and maintain their ideals.
Supported in part by these funds, Dominicans were present at the Games. In its second attendance in Mexico 1968, the country’s delegation featured 23 athletes in 7 sports. By then, the government authorities destined reduced allocations to top-tier athlete development: in the National Budget bill of that year, the allocated amount was 147 thousand Dominican pesos, which equates to around 50 million pesos at today’s value, adjusted for inflation. By comparison, the amount allocated in 2016 by the Government was 2,366 million Dominican pesos.
Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976 followed a similar path, until Moscow 1980 brought about one of the biggest crisis in the history of the Dominican Olympics. Twenty days short of the beginning of the Games, with the athletes already registered to participate thanks to the Olympic Solidarity funds held by the COD, President Antonio Guzmán Fernández withdrew the subsidy of the Dominican delegation and forbid the participation of military athletes. As a political decision, he had decided to support the U.S boycott of the Games, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
However, following the Olympic Charter, which advocates non-discrimination on creed, politics or race, the then-president of the Committee, Roque Napoleón “Polón” Muñoz, decided to send a delegation.
Polón had as much or more determination than the athletes he was representing: as the only Dominican in history to have been a member of the International Olympic Committee Board, he would not let the Dominican flame die due to lack of funding. According to Bienvenido Rojas, press officer of the Dominican delegation at that time, Muñoz was an old-school argumentative man, who would fight strongly for his ideals. Therefore, to raise funds for the delegation, he convinced the Dominican Olympic Committee to issue 50 cent bonds, and was able to cover the costs of the group of 16 representatives, with six athletes from track and field, boxing, diving and weightlifting.
“The delegation traveled to Moscow despite the government’s opposition,” recalls Rojas. “It was very complicated to make ticket reservations and organize travel logistics, in addition to the political pressure. But we took a good delegation and got the job done.”
During those Games, Gerardo Suero Correa reached the semifinals in the 100m dash, with a 10.57 seconds 4TH place. Marisela Peralta recorded 14.18 seconds in the first heat of the 100m hurdles, and was eliminated. Andrés Tena fell in his first 60kg boxing bout against his Soviet opponent, Samson Khachatryan. In diving, Reynaldo Castro and César Jiménez finished 18TH and 23RD, respectively. Mario Rodríguez Figueredo also saw his chances of reaching the podium vanish. The work needed to continue. Just four years later, the Committee reaped the fruit of its efforts: finally, the first Olympic medal for the country arrived.
The Los Angeles Olympic Games promised a unique opportunity for Dominican sports. Cuba, which had obtained 22 medals in boxing since 1960 including 12 gold, would not be present in the competition, complying with the retaliatory boycott of the Soviet Bloc to the United States. This situation opened an opportunity for the Dominican Republic to dream big. The country had sent Pedro Julio Nolasco, a 22-year-old boxer who arrived in California with two Pan Am Games silver medals. The fighter, a native from La Romana, was quick, of orthodox style, with a withering punch and able to withstand the attack of his rivals.
“Nolasco was a special fighter,” recalls the then-president of the Dominican Boxing Federation, Bienvenido Solano. “He was a hard-working kid, and contrary to what happens with some fighters, was very disciplined. He abided by all instructions and had a formidable punch.”
This was confirmed by the Yugoslav Ljubiša Simić, the Ugandan John Siryakibbe and Puerto Rican native John John Molina. In the bronze-medal fight, Nolasco mercilessly beat the South Korean Sung-Kil Moon during the few seconds that it lasted, causing injuries that forced the referee to stop the fight. When that bell rang, it marked the first Olympic triumph for the country.
“That was a transcendental moment in the history of Dominican sports. It was the first Olympic medal of the country and was celebrated in full,” recalls the then Sports Minister Luis Scheker Ortiz. “The President of the country [Salvador Jorge Blanco] welcomed Nolasco at the National Palace, and made a series of well-deserved recognitions.”
After modest performances in Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, the Dominican Republic raised its banner in a historical place. When the Games returned to its birthplace in Athens, athlete Félix Sánchez put the country on the Olympic map.
Born in the U.S. to Dominican parents, the so-called “Super Sánchez” arrived in Athens as a world champion, with a streak of 43 consecutive victories in the 400-meter hurdles. He earned his spot in the semifinals with the second fastest time at 48.51 seconds. In the first race, he recorded a time of 47.93 seconds, the fastest of those advancing to the finals. And there, on the day of the race for the podium, the whole Dominican Republic was glued to the TV screens to watch him win the nation’s first gold ever. “Félix raised us above the developed European nations, and other sporting powers in our region, like Venezuela,” said the current president of COD, Luisín Mejia Oviedo.
After this participation, Sánchez was troubled by injuries, and saw his times on the track get worse. In Beijing 2008, the once fast legs gave him just enough to finish eighth place in the qualifying race. His retirement was imminent.
As he assessed whether his road to glory had come to an end, two other Dominicans were just beginning theirs. Female weightlifter Yudelkis Contreras reached fifth place, which improved to fourth in 2016, when a positive test removed the bronze medal from the Belarussian Nastassia Novikava; while Gabriel Mercedes won silver in taekwondo. Recalling and surpassing the feat of Pedro Julio Nolasco, boxer Félix Díaz won the gold medal by beating Manus Boonjumnong of Thailand, with a 12-4 score in the final match.
“Conquering a gold medal in the Olympic Games, to be a champion, that’s something that no one can take away from you,” says Díaz. “People everywhere remember me as the Dominican champion in Beijing 2008, and that is something that fills you with pride.”
The Dominican national anthem speaks of an indomitable and brave country, that if it were a thousand times enslaved, it would a thousand times regain freedom. The beautiful melody of that song caught the attention of Gordon Darroch, an English journalist who watched the award ceremony of the 400m hurdles in London 2012 on television.
In an article titled “How I found the Olympic spirit in Santo Domingo,” the British writer expressed his admiration for the story of an athlete, and the national symbol of a small Caribbean nation. When Félix Sánchez took the podium and began to reflect on eight years of pain and frustration, he was not singing the anthem. Instead, he was crying tears of joy mixed with relief, while the notes of the national anthem filled the stadium. The melody itself was a pleasant surprise, like a flower in the desert, strong and delicate at once, with an unexpected and rare beauty, Darroch says.
While the notes of the National Anthem were being played, Félix Sánchez, who many had considered a fallen star, had risen from the ashes, conquering gold again. He could not hold back his tears in an 80-thousand person stadium.
“I gave all I had for my country,” recalls the champion. “In my four Olympic Games with the Dominican Republic, I saw major changes in sports: Dominican athletes began to believe they could go to the Games and win medals. The mentality changed, and for good.”
It took the Dominican Republic 20 years of Olympic experience to win its first medal in 1984, 20 more were needed before obtaining its second. Today, a number of rising stars and new prospects could significantly shorten the time to the next. In the same London 2012 Games where Félix Sánchez had his emotional return, Luguelín Santos, from Monte Plata, showed his own prowess and earned his own silver medal. Seventeen-year-old Beatriz Pirón, competing in weightlifting in her first Games ever, finished ninth, while the women’s volleyball team advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in the history of Dominican sports.
“To us, the Dominican Republic’s women’s volleyball team, our results in London are our greatest achievement,” says Brenda Castillo, selected best libero in the world in these Olympics. “The satisfaction of advancing to the quarterfinals is something that can’t be compared to anything.”
A total of 29 athletes attended the Games in Rio representing the Dominican Republic, led by flag-bearer Luguelín Santos. For the former silver medalist, Rio represented a bitter aftertaste, for he could not fully recover from a hamstring injury that led him to be eliminated in the semifinals of the 400m, seeing his aspiration to conquer another medal slip away.
Beatriz Pirón and Yudelkis Contreras finished fourth and sixth respectively in their weightlifting categories, while Víctor Estrella became the second Dominican and first male tennis player to participate in the Olympics.
The spark came in taekwondo, where Luisito Pie won a bronze medal. “Despite having had a slow start, he ended up with a good performance,” said Luisín Mejia. “Sports continue to grow in the country and now we need greater investments.”
Combat sports and weightlifting have proven to be fertile ground of potential medals for the country, as has been track and field. The integration of karate in Tokyo 2020, as well as softball and baseball, –the king of Dominican sports, land of the 2013 World Classic Champions with their “Plaintain Power,”– also opens new opportunities for the podium. Although it is unlikely that major leaguers will participate in the 2020 Olympics, given schedule conflicts with the Major League season, the Dominican team should rank as one of the favorites to win a medal at the return of these sports after being absent in London 2012.
With the support of the Dominican government, through the Ministry of Sports and the High Performance Athletes Program, New Values and Immortal Athletes Program (PARNI), as well as private initiatives such as the Creating Olympic Dreams Program (CRESO), Dominican sport has been rising consistently over the last three decades. As a matter of fact, a Dominican has worn an Olympic medal in each of the last four Olympic Games. With this outlook, the country prepares itself to see that number grow.