Hispanics have rapidly emerged as the largest minority group in the United States, comprising 15 percent of the population, but on the U.S. Olympic team assembling in China they are for a range of reasons strikingly underrepresented.
It’s no fault of the Lopez family from Sugar Land, Texas three Lopez siblings are on the taekwondo team, coached by their oldest brother. It’s no fault of Commerce, California, a heavily Hispanic working-class suburb of Los Angeles with a youth aquatics program that has produced two members of the women’s water polo team.
Overall, however, an Associated Press review found only about two-dozen Hispanic athletes on the nearly 600-member U.S. team roughly 4 percent. By contrast, African-Americans, who make up 13.5 percent of the population, hold more than 120 spots on the team. More than half of the 126 U.S. track-and-field athletes are Black; only two distance runners Leonel Manzano and Jorge Torres are fully Hispanic.
Torres, raised in the Chicago area by Mexican-born parents, says it may take another generation before Hispanic Americans assume an Olympic role proportionate to their numbers.
“We’re still a young culture many of us are first-generation Americans,” he said. “The priorities for my parents weren’t sports; they were to put bread on the table, to move ahead and become good American citizens.”
Torres says he had enough raw talent to attract college scholarship offers. But he contended that many young Hispanic athletes in track and other sports fall through the cracks despite great promise.
“Outreach programs would make things easier for people less fortunate (and) help the kids who have potential to maybe find the road to the next level,” he said. “Right now there is no road. It’s bushwhacking your way through to the other side and most of them get lost.”
“Hispanic kids are predominantly from poor families,” he said. “The parents don’t know their way through the system. A lot of the kids can’t get scholarships as easily as African-Americans can.”
Mateo would like to see targeted investments by foundations and the U.S. Olympic movement to support talented young Hispanics.
Swimming, unlike track and field, has a scarcity of both Blacks and Hispanics in its upper echelons the 56-member Olympic swimming and diving squad has one Black and no Hispanics. USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body, has acknowledged the problem by launching extensive learn-to-swim programs in Black and Hispanic communities.
USA Track and Field, for its part, is likely to at least consider targeting outreach programs at Hispanics. USATF’s newly installed CEO is Doug Logan, a former Major League Soccer commissioner who was born in Cuba.
“I need to find out more. I don’t have all the answers,” Logan said. “We have to do more to take the fine young athletes that exist among new Americans and find some ways of creating opportunities for them. They are underrepresented.”
Logan noted Hispanic Americans are far from monolithic in their sports interests, with passions ranging from soccer to baseball to boxing. Track and field is generally not high on the list, yet some athletes from elsewhere in Latin America, notably Cuba, have been world champions.
Soccer and baseball appeal to many Hispanic American youth, yet only a couple of Hispanics are on the men’s Olympic teams in those sports. Of all the U.S. teams in China, the one with the largest Hispanic contingent — four — is the women’s softball team.
In parts of Latin America, and in many Hispanic American families, girls are far less apt than boys to be encouraged to try competitive sports, but that outlook appears to be changing.
In Commerce, home to the remarkable water polo program, the girls’ team has been a powerhouse for years, and two of its alumnae Brenda Villa and Patty Cardenas are on the Olympic squad. Both are first-generation Americans with parents from the same Mexican town.
Villa, the Olympic captain, says she was fortunate to have parents who didn’t oppose her interest in sports.
“I did have some classmates that were discouraged by parents to play sports and many were very talented,” Villa said in an e-mail. “They would start the season on a sports team and halfway through quit because they couldn’t make practice (because) they had to baby-sit or run errands for their moms.”
She praised the commitment of civic leaders in Commerce, who have promoted an ambitious and varied youth recreation program. Indeed, the industrial city of 12,500 has a third Olympian boxer Javier Molina.
“In Commerce, more parents now see that their children can represent the U.S. at the Olympics,” Villa said. “The city does a good job of giving their Olympians a lot of recognition, so residents are forced to become familiar with the Olympians and that accessibility gives them hope and encouragement.”
More broadly, Villa said it would help if Spanish-language TV networks in the U.S. broadened the focus of their sports programming beyond soccer and a few other favorites.
“The Spanish networks need to do their part in exposing Hispanic athletes in the nontraditional sports, so that parents can see all the options their kids have,” Villa said.
In that regard, the Beijing Olympics will be a help. Telemundo, which reaches 93 percent of U.S. Hispanic households, plans to cover a much broader range of sports in these games than it did four years ago in Athens, including gymnastics, swimming and track.
“It’s a difficult path,” said Jorge Hidalgo, a Telemundo vice president for sports. “We’ll give the Hispanic athletes a special focus, but we want to follow the other good stories as well.”
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