Puerto Rico: Center of Track and Field Attraction
This country has only one athlete to win the World and Olympic medal in track and field, put Puerto Rico boasts of having an impressive number of high-level facilities and always having the stands full.
After having attended the Champs in Jamaica, I thought that I couldn't be more impressed by a national event, that isn't about the stars of the world, in terms of the fans' passion and involvement, full crowd and overall level of organization. Well, it's actually true, the Champs are something else. But the competition I got to attend in Puerto Rico, during the IAAF media project Day in the Life, is a close second. I'm talking about the national intercollegiate championships, or simply "Justas".
The final day of the competition at a beautiful stadium in Ponce started off with a parade. Marching bands, gymnasts, mascots, flags - every university had something unique in store for this opening ceremony. One could easily distinguish each school's sector in the full stands. Besides fans being dressed in their school's colors, there were huge flags placed on the top of the sectors.
Javier Culson, photo by Jean-Pierre DURAND for IAAF
And then there was the dynamic action on the track. We spotted the World and Olympic medallist in the 400m hurdles Javier Culson cheering for his alma mater. Colombia's World and Olympic champion in the triple jump Caterine Ibarguen also went to school in Puerto Rico, and, of course, competed at Justas. This year, she was already acting as an assistant coach. Then we noticed Luguelin Santos, even though we didn't recognize him at first, because he was sporting emerald green hair! The prodigy 400m runner from Dominican Republic is a student at the Interamerican university, so he added some spark to his appearance to match the school's yellow and green kit. And Santos, despite his international achievements, is not any sort of a diva on his collegiate team. In just one day he ran individual 200m and 400m races, as well as both relays. He, of course, won the 400m and celebrated the victory by unfolding both Dominican and Puerto Rican flags.
Fortunately, I was able to talk to the Puerto Rican Athletic Federation President Jose Arraras to learn more about Justas' background and the development of the sport in the country.
Jose Arraras: Justas tarted in 1929, when three universities got together and did a track and field meet. For very many years it was all about track and field, but for the last 14-15 years, we've combined a week-long festival. We have basketball, softball, swimming, table tennis, judo. But it culminates with big track and field finals. We have now an Olympic medallist, Luguelin Santos, competing here. He is one of very many talented athletes from other countries, particularly from Venezuela, Colombia, Dominican Republic. We expect to see a full crowd. The capacity of the stadium is 14,000 seats, plus 2,000 students in the parade. It's really the biggest event, because what's around it - is a big festival of music. During the evenings the top artists of Puerto Rico and other countries come here and entertain people. And they expect to have here, in Ponce, tonight about 180,000 persons for the festival. As a matter of fact, our system here is basically an NCAA-type of an organization. We have 20 universities from Puerto Rico and the University of Virgin Islands.
ED: Does having this system in place help to retain talented athletes at home?
JA: In track and field - yes. In basketball and volleyball, our top students get scholarships in the States. The quality of basketball here is good, but not as good to keep our best athletes here, if they get scholarships at the American universities. Basketball is probably the most popular sport here, followed by baseball. And we actually tend to lose talented jumpers to basketball and volleyball.
ED: What did Javier Culson's medals change for the sport in the country?
JA: It has brought a lot of interest! As a matter of fact, one of our best events now is the 400m hurdles. We have another athlete Eric Alejandro that is doing very well, top-25 in the world. And Jamele Mason was doing very well, but unfortunately he had a very poor last year.
ED: We see an impressive level of a nationwide participation and of the spectator interest for track and field here, at Justas...
JA: We have more spectators than at similar meets in the US. Fortunately, we have a very good school system, we're doing a lot of Kids' Athletics, we have 5000 kids doing that, and we have about 9000 kids in clubs, so young people are coming up, and we'll have very good competitors in the next few years. I will be the President of the national federation only until 2016, but I will leave a very good legacy, regarding people that are coming up.
ED: What about the training and competition facilities in Puerto Rico?
JA: There are more tracks in Puerto Rico per square mile, than in the U.S. or anywhere in the World. They are all over the place, even up in the mountains... Right now, most of the important track development actually goes on in the mountains. Yesterday here we had a competition in the race walk, and the first three were from the same town in the mountains, Barranquitas. So, in the mountains the advantage we have is that usually they don't play basketball. We have less competition, so we get the best talent in track and field. But having the tracks all over the place is incredible. They attract not only competitive athletes, but also regular people for walking and participating.
ED: What are the chances for your country in terms of bidding for major events? Maybe the World Relays?
JA: I doubt it, because of the financial circumstances. If something would happen, it would be in Mayaguez, because that area is more wealthy. We are planning to host the NACAC U23 Championships in a couple of years. But I don't think that we'll have an event like the World Relays. Anyway, my philosophy is that whenever I bring an event here, I need to have Puerto Rican participants that are going to do well. Or we'll be criticized by the press. In relays, unfortunately, we're in America, and in America you have U.S, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bahamas, so it's the event we cannot quite compete in.
Well, track and field struggles to compete for sponsors' and spectators' attention with team sports all over the world. But such events as Justas, especially with the participations of high-profile athletes, definitely help to build the image of the sport, and Puerto Rico can be proud of that, as well as of having quality arenas not only in Ponce, San Juan and Mayaguez, but all over the country. And with the passion of local fans, whatever event the country chooses to host, the athletes will definitely feel very welcome.