In the Pan-Latin American Kids Study 1997, we asked Latin American children who their favorite athletes were.  The first table shows the most popular athletes from their own countries:

Favorite Athlete from Your Own Country

Country Athlete Name (% votes)
Argentina Diego Maradona (15%)
Enzo Franchescoli (5%)
Gabriel Batistuta (2%)
Brazil Ronaldo (31%)
Bebeto (8%)
Romario (5%)
Gustavo Kuerten (4%)
Pele (3%)
H˘rtencia (2%)
Ayrton Senna (2%)
Chile Marcelo Salas (23%)
Ivan Zamorano (19%)
Marcelo Rios (14%)
Colombia Faustino Asprilla (17%)
Carlos Valderrama (17%)
Edgar Renteria (9%)
Rene Higuita (4%)
Farid Mondragon (1%)
Mexico Jorge Campos (14%)
Gustavo Napoles (6%)
Luis Garcia (5%)
Luis Hernandez (3%)
Ramon Ramirez (3%)
Julio Cesar Chavez (1%)
Puerto Rico Igor Gonzalez (37%)
Roberto Alomar (10%)
Venezuela Andres Galarraga (28%)
Omar Vizquel (9%)

Note 1: The survey was conducted prior to the World Cup in France.  We would expect that the fortunes to have changed for some individuals --- some on the upswing (e.g. star goal scorer Luis ("El Matador") Hernandez for Mexico) and some on the downswing (e.g. Faustino Asprilla, who was booted off the Colombia team for dissension). On that note, the baseball home run feats of Sammy Sosa in 1998 should make him the national hero of the Dominican Republic
Note 2: In the remaining countries, here are some cited names:

Note 3: We point out that 48% of the kids could not name a favorite athlete.   Furthermore, there is a huge gender gap as more 34% of the boys could not name someone, versus 63% of the girls.  Apart from the traditional role for girls, a contributory factor is the absence of major female athletes in Latin America.  In fact, the only females named were: Claudia Poll (the only Olympic gold medal winner ever from Costa Rica), H˘rtencia (retired basketball player from Brazil), Gabriela Sabatini (retired tennis player from Argentina), and Ximena Restrepo (sprinter from Colombia).

The children were then asked to name their favorite athletes from outside their own countries.  Here are the top vote getters:

We point out that 78% of the kids could not name an athlete outside of their own country.  Apparently, familiarity with foreign athletes depends on exposure to foreign media, as we found that 31% of kids in multichannel television homes could name a favorite foreign athlete, compared to 20% of kids in non-multichannel television homes.   The gender gap is again very wide: 66% among boys versus 90% among girls. 

(extract from from Barbara Smela's talk "What do Juan and Maria want to be when they grow up?" delivered at the Kid Power 98 conference in Miami, FL, USA on September 8th, 1998.)

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