First Centroamerican in an Olympic Games
By Fernando Arrechea Rivas
In recent issues of the Journal of Olympic History we have read interesting articles on the disputed nationality of some Olympic athletes. Following this line of debate, we can delve into a case in Paris 1924: the Spanish tennis player Ricardo Saprissa Aymà.
Our star was born in San Salvador (El Salvador) on June 24th 1901 to Salvadorian nationalized Spanish parents (José Saprissa Llurá, businessman and honorary consul of El Salvador in Almeria (1) and Carmen Aymà Sagrera). At the age of 3, he travelled with his mother to his family hometown (Barcelona) to study, but the tragic death of his father made him return to San Salvador in 1910.
As a typical sportsman of the era he practiced several sports, standing out as a boxer and above all as a tennis player, winning the first Central American championship for El Salvador against Guatemala in 1920. He also took to other sports such as baseball and football, as well as hunting and chess.
At the age of 20 he returned to Barcelona to complete his engineering specialization although due to problems validating his studies he ended up opening a shop.
In Spain he stood out in all the sports that he had practiced in America and in some that he discovered in Europe:
-Baseball: he was a notable catcher and soon stood out in this sport which in the Barcelona of the time was a minority sport only practiced by “indianos” (Catalans who had been to America). (2)
-Tennis: he joined the small and elite Sportiva Pompeya Club where he quickly became one of the best players, especially in doubles, pairing up with Antonio Juanico. In 1923 and 1924 they were champions of Catalonia and Spain and logically (apart from the doubts regarding his nationality) they were selected for the Paris Olympic Games. An injury to Juanico changed their plans and Saprissa paired up with Eduard Flaquer for the men’s doubles and with Rosa Torras in the mixed doubles.
With Flaquer he survived two rounds, beating the Portuguese pair Casanovas and Castro-Pereira by w.o. and the Japanese Fukuda and Honda 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, losing in the 3rd round to the South Africans Condon and Richardson 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 and receiving harsh criticism from the Spanish press.
In the mixed doubles with Rosa Torras (first Spanish woman in the Games together with Lilí Álvarez) they were defeated in the first round by Italians Umberto de Morpungo and Giulia Ferelli 6-3, 10-8. (3)
Saprissa also represented Spain in the Davis Cup. In the tie match against Belgium in Antwerp from May 2nd to 4th 1930 he played (and won) the doubles with Enrique Meier. They defeated the hosts De Borman and Ewbank 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 8-6, 6-3 and Spain won the series 4-1. (4)
-Field hockey: he discovered this sport in Spain and was captivated by it, going so far as to say it was his favourite. He became one of the best forwards in the country and the star of Pompeya. Following the demise of the hockey section of the club in 1924 he passed to the Real Polo Club, where he won the Spanish championships in 1924 and 1925.
He played several friendly matches with the Spanish team between 1924 (Spain 0- Belgium 5) (5) and 1929 (Barcelona International Tournament for Universal Exposition: Spain 3- France 0, Spain 3- Austria 0 and Spain 0- Germany 1) (6).
He gave up playing this sport regularly in 1925 (although he returned for some exhibitions and for the important Barcelona International Tournament in 1929) due to knee problems and lack of time to take part in so many sports and a working life.
We must specify that (with the exception of the 1928/9 season when he accepted a professional contract from RCD Español because of financial difficulties) Saprissa was always an amateur and defended that romantic concept of the sport. A humorous caricature of the Catalan sports weekly Xut presented the famous goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora as a symbol of professionalism paying homage to Ricardo Saprissa as a champion of amateurism in the legend: “Jo et beneixo Saprissa! T´has perdut catorze quilòmetres de calderilla, però ets feliç. Que el teu exemple tingui imitadors, perquè els professionals poguem repartir-nos-en més.” (7)
-Football (soccer): was the sport which brought him the most popularity, highlighting his years at RCD Español in Barcelona (1922-1932). As right defender alongside the legendary international goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora and left defender Conrad Portas they formed one of the best defences of the era.
Among their titles there were two Catalonian championships and the King’s Cup in 1929 (Español 2- Real Madrid 1). He was team captain and stood out for his fair play (he was never sent off or reprimanded) (8).
He was named honorary president of RCD Español in 1932 which he held until his death. He also played several friendly matches with the Catalonian team.
So, if he was such a good defender, why didn’t he ever play for the Spanish football team? Some journalists claimed his part in the national team but it was never proved. The reason?
The RCD Español historian Juan Segura Palomares told us in 1974: “As a footballer he is extraordinary. If he never wore the national team shirt it was due to his nationality which he never surrendered despite his love for Spain”. (9)
Saprissa himself reminded us in an interview in 1931 that he was not Spanish: “Because I was born there (El Salvador). I came to Barcelona when I was three and at ten I returned to MY COUNTRY to study my degree. At nineteen, I returned to Spain with the intention of broadening my studies…” (10).
Absolute proof that he was a Salvadorian citizen and he continued to be while living in Spain as shown by his passport issued by the consulate in Barcelona on May 23rd 1928, a copy of which we have attached. (11)
But if he could play for the Spanish field hockey team in various friendly matches and represent Spain at tennis at the Olympic games of 1924 and the Davis Cup of 1930 why couldn’t he play with the national football team?
The answer is not simple: in the 1920s the idea of nationality and international representation in national teams was not the same as nowadays and these questions varied depending on the sport, type of competition and era. The fact that Saprissa was never called was probably influenced by the case of Juan Errazquin. Juan Errazquin (born in Leones, Argentina in 1906 to Basque Spanish parents) was a forward for the Real Unión of Irún who defended in the Spanish shirt in 6 friendly matches between 1925 and 1928, being called up by the coach Berraondo for the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. The problem arose when the Organizing Committee requested passports from players and discovered that Errazquin was an Argentinean citizen. They denied his registration despite promises from the Spanish team that they would urgently issue him with a Spanish passport (12)
This case shows that the uses and customs regarding nationality at that time were flexible and the case of Errazquin may have been a turning point.
Saprissa was not the only Spanish Olympian born outside of Spain at that time; in the early fixtures we find several sportsmen born in Cuba (José Bento López) or the Philippines (Manuel Toledo Coca, César Miguel de los Reyes, Julio Castro del Rosario), when these territories were still colonial possessions. Other Spanish sportsmen/women were born outside Spain by accident (for example the famous tennis player Lilí Álvarez, born in Rome).
But there is no other case of nationality where we have so many reasonable doubts.
On the contrary, we have several sporting stars born in Spain (or registered as Spanish citizens at the time of birth) competing for other countries in the first Olympic Games (13):
For France: the cyclist Fernando Sanz y Martínez de Arizala (unrecognised son of King Alfonso XII) in 1900 and gymnasts from the Oran region (Algeria) Joseph Martínez, Antoine Costa, Robert Díaz, Louis Ségura and Marcos Torres during 1900-1920.
For Argentina: the athletes Juan Bautista Pina and Serafín Dengra in 1928.
For Uruguay: the footballers Pedro Cea (1924, 1928) and Lorenzo Fernández (1928).
For Switzerland: the footballer Adolphe Mengotti Arnáiz (1924).
In 1932 Saprissa left Spain and settled in another American country (Costa Rica) where his brother had businesses.
There he continued to play football (at Orión) and tennis (he represented his new adoptive country in the Central America Games in 1938 and won the regional Tournament in 1946 against El Salvador) and was Costa Rica’s football coach in the Central American Games in 1935 and 1938 and in the Pan-American Games of 1951. (14)
He was co-founder of Deportivo Saprissa in 1935 and this club’s stadium has borne his name since 1972.
Ricardo Saprissa Aymà died in Alajuela (Costa Rica) on August 16th 1990.
International representative of three countries (El Salvador, Spain and Costa Rica) in three sports (tennis, football and field hockey), he is remembered in Costa Rica by the club and stadium which bear his name and among the oldest RCD Español fans or with more interest in his history but overall, he was a perfect stranger. (15)
The Olympic debut of the seven republics of Central America occurred as follows:
-Panama (1928, Adán Gordon Jr. In swimming)
-Guatemala (1932, Antonia Matos in artistic competitions, first sporting events in 1952)
-El Salvador (1932, Pierre de Matheu in artistic competitions, first sporting events in 1968)
-Costa Rica (1936, Bernardo de la Guardia in fencing)
As a result we should conclude that the Salvadorian Ricardo Saprissa Aymà (tennis player with the Spanish team in Paris 1924) was the first Olympic sportsman from the Republic of El Salvador and all of Central America.
(1) Guía oficial de España. (Official guide to Spain) Issues from 1907 to 1915. José Saprissa continued to appear as consul to El Salvador in Almeria in several issues of the guide after his death.
(2) Pastor Pacheco, José Antonio. Ricardo Saprissa. El Campeón Total. Su Vida y Legado. (The Complete Champion. His Life and Legacy) Issue Jadine, San José (Costa Rica), 2010. Pag. 26.
(3) La Jornada Deportiva (The Daily Sport), July 28th 1924. Pag. 18.
(4) La Voz (The Voice), May 6th 1930. Pag. 7.
(5) Gran Vida (Great Life), April 1st 1924. Pag. 13.
(6) Gran Vida (Great Life), December 1st 1929. Pag. 8.
(7) “I thank you, Saprissa! You have worked for pennies but you are happy. I hope that your example is followed so that we can have more professionals.”
(8) El Mundo Deportivo (Sporting World), February 9th 1996. Pag. 21.
(9) Segura Palomares, Juan. Historia del R.C.D.Español. (History of RCD Espanol) Gran Enciclopedia Vasca (Great Basque Encyclopaedia), Bilbao, 1974.
(10) Crónica. (Chronicle) February 8th 1931.
(11) Courtesy of Jordi Puyaltó Quintana and José Antonio Pastor Pacheco.
(12) El Mundo Deportivo (Sporting World), August 22nd 1928. Pag.2
(13) Arrechea Rivas, Fernando. 1900. La Primera Aventura Olímpica Española (The First Spanish Olympic Adventure). Author’s issue, 2009. Olímpicos Españoles (Spanish Olympians). (In preparation)
(14) Pastor Pacheco, José Antonio. Op.cit. Pag. 80-105. El Mundo Deportivo (Sporting World), September 12th 1956. Pag. 4.
(15) A sample of this oversight, sadly shown in the “Historical memory” of Spanish sport, is the information offered by the Spanish Olympic Committee (www.coe.es) within the “Spanish Olympians” section on Ricardo Saprissa Aymà: “Raimundo [sic] Saprisa [sic]. Date of birth: 01/01/1904 [sic]. Place of birth: Spain [sic]. Deceased: Pending allocation. Current address: Spain [sic]”. Consulted February 4th 2011.
Ricardo Saprissa (in the centre) at the inauguration of the 1924 Olympic Games.
Saprissa’s Salvadorian Passport issued at the Barcelona Consulate in 1928. (Archive Jordi Puyaltó-José Antonio Pastor).
Ricardo Saprissa Aymà.