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Why the IOC considers Puerto Rico as its own country in the Olympics

On the first day of the 2016 Rio Olympics, U.S. and Puerto Rico face off in women's volleyball—but wait, why would two groups of U.S. citizens play? And could other U.S. geographical regions form their own Olympic teams?

This Saturday, the U.S. women’s volleyball team will play the Puerto Rico women’s volleyball team in the opening round of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. You might wonder why two groups of U.S. citizens would compete against one another. After all, the Olympic Games are an international competition that, through medal counts, measures how athletes from different countries perform.

The simplest answer for why Puerto Rico has an Olympic program is two-fold: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has exclusive authority to determine which states count as countries for purposes of Olympic law, and the IOC regards Puerto Rico as a country.

Puerto Rico, however, is not considered a country by the world’s governments. So why does the IOC treat it as one? And if Puerto Rico is a country for purposes of the Olympics, could other U.S. geographic regions that are not states form their own Olympic teams?

I tackle some of these issues below.

Puerto Rico and its territorial status

Puerto Rico, a tropical island located about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, has been a U.S. territory since 1898. It formally became a U.S. possession as part of the Treaty of Paris, which was signed by the U.S. and Spain as a means of ending the three-month Spanish-American War. That war, which was precipitated by the sinking of the U.S.S Maine and the deaths of 266 sailors on it, involved the U.S. army invading and then occupying Spanish-held Puerto Rico. The U.S. has not left the island since.