It is an axiom in Puerto Rico that any issue tossed into the local political cauldron is sure to boil down to the question of the island's political status.
The issue of Puerto Rico's position on President Carter's call for an Olympic boycott, a political fireball from the start, has been no exception to the rule.
German Rieckehoff, president of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee and a steadfast opponent of the boycott, has sought to demonstrate Puerto Rico's independence from Washington and, many observers believe, to deal a blow to Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo and statehood.
Rieckehoff, although he insists that politics should not be a factor in sports, also is known to be an advocate of independence for the island, and has stressed time and again in his antiboycott campaign that the PROC is an autonomous-unit, ot subject to the rules of the federal government.
Both Gov. Romero, who heads the new progressive party that favors statehood, and former governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, whose popular democratic party favored the island's current commonwealth status, have condemned Rieckehoff and the PROC for their defiance of the presidential decree.
Ruben Berrios, leader of the Puerto Rico Independence Party has supported Rieckehoff as expected, and the committee's stance and spoken out against Herandez Colon for playing ball with the Romero administraion.
Rieckehoff emerged an apparent winner last Sunday in the contest of whether or not to send a single "symbolic" athlete to the 22nd Olympiad in Moscow next month. The boxing federation reversed an earlier decision and voted 3 to 2 in favor of the symbolic representation.
The boxing federations' reversal opened the door for Alberto Mercado, Pan American Games flyweight champion, who is considered Puerto Rico's best hope for bringing home a medal, to represent Puerto Rico in Moscow.
The campaign to send Puerto Rican athletes to the Olympics was spear-headed by Rieckehoff in April with a proposal to allow each sport's federation to decide for itself whether or not to heed Carter's boycott call.That proposal was backed by the PROC, 21-3.
Aside from boxing, three federations have since opted to ignore the boycott, but boxing remains the one federation with any hope of victory at the Games. The basketball federation, which voted to go to Moscow, has decided to send no one after six frontline players said they would support Carter's boycott.
In the thick of the controversy following the PROC's April decision, Rieckehoff had accused the Romero administration of threatening athletes -- especially basketball players -- with reprisals, including tax probes and loss of jobs.
Romero vehemently denied the accusation at a May press conference, saying "There will be no retaliation against individual athletes. There will be retaliation against the PROC and the sports federations that vote to send athletes to Moscow."
Romero also threatened to cut off commonwealth funds to the PROC and the federations that ignore the boycott and to refuse to ask Congress for federal funds for the Central American and Caribbean Games scheduled here in 1981.
The legislature has since put Romero's threat into action by transferring the $500,000 in annual support the PROC receives through the park and recreation administration to the newly created sports administration. Another $200,000 earmarked for the various federations also was redirected by the legislature.
In spite of these and other pressures and threatened reprisals from the administration and legislature, Rieckehoff has held steadfast in his stance against the boycott.
"We are financially broke," he said in a recent interview, "but we are morally very strong." He has also said, following the PROC's support of his antiboycott proposal," "even if nobody goes, I consider this a great moral victory of sincere convictions and principles."
The campaign to defy Carter's boycott call has not only left the PROC without funds, it also has caused a split in the body itself. Delegates have angrily denounced one another on both political and ethical grounds in heated debates. Some observers have predicted that, even if the committee should manage to survive on public donations or other sources of revenue, the hatred created by the bitter dissension over the boycott places its future in doubt.
Arturo Gallardo, basketball federation president, favored the boycott but he had a mandate by a 9-5 vote within his federation calling for attendance. Not wishing to defy the mandate, Gallardo surrendered his May 23 vote to alternate delgate Jenaro Marchand, an avid supporter of participation.
According to Rieckehoff's concept of a single symbolic representative at the Moscow Games, the athlete would march under the International Olympic Committee banner instead of the Puerto Rican flag and, should he win a medal, the IOC anthem, not the Puerto Rican hymn, would be played.
The precedence for Puerto Rico's autonomy in Olympics sports goes back 32 years, according to Rieckehoff, and has also been demonstrated by the "sports citizenship" participation by athletes from other nations in the Olympics.
To send his single athlete to Moscow, Rieckehoff has requested $5,000 in a loan or a grant from the Olympic solidarity commission. This should be a sufficient sum since he will only have to fly the athlete to Mexico, where a Russian transport plane is waiting to take athletes from Latin American countries to Moscow.
Though Rieckehoff's firm stance against the Carter boycott has weakened his committee's financial strength, observers predict that a victory in Moscow would strengthen his political position with the IOC, of which he is vice president. "Under the best democratic principles in accord with our lifestyle, everyone must have the right and freedom to act in accordance with his won free will and conscience."
But winning, too, is apparently a principle involved in Rieckehoff's choice of boxer Mercado, an 18-year-old Pan American gold medalist with seven years experience and a 121-3 record. A Mercado victory or medal could not help but be celebrated by the Puerto Rican people. It would make Rieckehoff, who instigated the choice, a hero, too.