The Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation (TTGF) will achieve a personal milestone at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, as—for the first time in its history—the local board will send a gymnast to the world’s most illustrious sporting event.
But, according to how you review the circumstances, it will not be the one who deserved to go.
Twenty year old Thema Williams, a former St Joseph’s Convent (Port of Spain) student, earned a chance at the Rio spot on 23 October 2015 in the Glasgow World Championships.
But in the end, it was her alternate, 18 year old old Marisa Dick, who competed at the crucial Rio Test event on April 17, which confirmed Trinidad and Tobago’s place at the Olympics.
And despite the controversy over the manner of Williams’ deselection—on the eve of the Test event—the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) ruled today, in a press conference at the Olympic House in Port of Spain, that Dick will go.
TTOC president Brian Lewis said the “game changer” was the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) release on 29 April which “confirmed that the name change from Thema Williams to Marisa Dick was duly made by the TTGF in accord with the declaration by the FIG.”
The FIG’s position, according to the TTOC, suggested that the international body had cleared the procedure used by the TTGF in removing Williams. This release—and Lewis referred to the FIG’s timing as “curious”—was seen as an invitation to legal action against the TTOC, should it rule against Dick.
Yet, even as Lewis endorsed Dick, he suggested that the TTGF could be disciplined under Clause 13 of its constitution—which is entitled “Measures and Sanctions”—and lamented the position that the TTOC found itself in. It is the first time that the TTOC has ever invoked that clause.
“It is a dark cloud over the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic movement,” said Lewis. “Public confidence in the governance of sport has been shaken… We deplore the situation that the ttoc has found itself in.”
Yet, Lewis confirmed that the procedure taken in Williams’ withdrawal was a consideration in the local Olympic body decision—but opted to select Dick anyway.
Possible disciplinary action notwithstanding, the TTOC’s choice, arguably, might be seen as vindication for TTGF president David Marquez’s decision to send Dick to Rio de Janeiro on the night of Friday April 15 while Williams and her coach, John Geddert, were asleep in their respective rooms.
“I said to myself before bed, one more day to clean up and fix my routine and prepare myself for competition on (April) 17th,” said Williams, at a press conference last Wednesday. “But when I woke up on the 16th, I received a call from my mother stating I was no longer the representative…
“I just wanted to go to the Olympics since I was at least eight years old. To know that that dream was being taken away from me, without even my knowledge. There was no consultation that took place…
“I went to (coach John Geddert’s room) immediately and said, did you hear the news? I had tears in my eyes.”
Ostensibly, the decision hinged on a training report submitted by Geddert on Friday evening, which claimed that Williams was bothered by a sore ankle and was having problems with her landings.
The report did not recommend that Williams should be pulled from the Test event. And, as has been oft repeated ever since, the TTGF’s athlete agreement stated that the former Tots and Tumblers could only be withdrawn by the “head of delegation in consultation with my coach and relevant medical personnel.”
The TTGF initially suggested that its head of delegation was massage therapist Nicole Fuentes, who did not support the decision to withdraw Williams. However, the local body subsequently claimed that Marquez, who was in Trinidad, was actually the head of delegation—and Fuentes herself said she was not the HOD.
Regardless, the gymnastics federation, which also included one of Dick’s coaches Ricardo Lue Shue, did not have a medical report or get the okay from Williams’ coach.
The TTGF did have attorney Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj SC though, who was hired immediately after the Test event.
And on Saturday afternoon, when Marquez and TTGF general secretary Elicia Peters-Charles met the TTOC contingent of Lewis, Annette Knott, Ian Hypolite, Diane Henderson and Dr Terrence Ali at the Olympic House, a new narrative had emerged.
A gymnastics insider pointed to the entire clause in Williams’ contract, which read: “I will participate for the full duration of the event unless I am excused by the head of delegation in consultation with my coach and relevant medical personnel.”
Marquez, the TTGF argued, was not bound by that stipulation. The clause was only the criteria for if Williams wished to withdraw on her own.
So what was the TTGF bound to then? Wasn’t the pre-World Championship contract—which stipulated that the top performing T&T gymnast in Glasgow, Williams, would participate at the Rio Test event—worth something?
“In law, it is referred to as the man on the Clapham omnibus,” said the gymnastics source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “(The contract) is silent on when the Federation can pull an athlete because it can do so at will. But it must show reason which can be worked out from any man on the street.”
And that “reason”, according to the TTGF, was Geddert’s email.
“Podium was a disaster with 6 falls on 3 events,” stated Geddert, on April 15. “She has been dealing with a sore ankle to the point that I asked her to withdraw last week.
“She assured me she can do this. We have been limiting all pounding and landings yet today she showed little signs of being able to perform well. We will rest tomorrow and rely on heart.”
Presumably, Marquez and Peters-Charles used the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ defence to Lewis, Knott, Hypolite, Henderson and Ali: What would you have done? Left Williams to rely on heart? Or pulled her in the middle of the night without a word to the coach or athlete?
The TTOC appeared to have been leaning in Marquez’s direction anyway. By the time the TTGF and TTOC representatives met, Williams’ chances of getting her spot back had virtually evaporated.
On Friday April 29, the FIG gave its position, which was Dick’s name was the only one that would be accepted from Trinidad and Tobago.
“Since the qualification place earned by Marisa Dick is nominative,” stated FIG secretary general André Gueisbuhler, “no name change or replacement is possible.”
It was not an unexpected response as Williams’ attorneys, Keith Scotland and Dr Emir Crowne, were banking primarily on the IOC’s Tripartite Commission and, as a matter of last resort, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
But, on the afternoon of Friday April 29, the TTOC delivered a more damaging blow to Williams’ hopes.
“The FIG has confirmed today that no name change or replacement is possible at this stage,” stated Lewis, “any approach to the Tripartite Commission can only be made through the auspices of the TTOC with the endorsement of the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation.”
As it turned out, the TTOC did not qualify for assistance from the Tripartite Commission in any case. But Lewis’ message that the TTGF would need to sanction any possible appeal was a crushing psychological blow to “Team Thema.”
On Sunday, in an interview with 107 FM, Lewis gave another hint of where the TTOC was blowing as he noted that the local Olympic committee was mindful “not to throw out the baby with the bath water.”
This morning, Lewis confirmed that the TTOC would not stand in Dick’s way.
For many newly converted gymnastics fans—who read emails from Dick’s mother, Hannifer Dick, that lobbied for the Canada-born athlete to replace Williams, after she was beaten fair and square—the decision might grate.
“I wanted to let you know that Marisa is now aware that she was not chosen to go to the test event in Rio,” stated Hannifer, on 9 November 2015. “It was posted onto the TTOC website which Thema has shared. Marisa is heart broken because nowhere there does it mention that she has represented Trinidad and Tobago for the last four years and has done so with the utmost respect for everyone involved.
“I have tried to tell her that there is hope but at this point she does not feel like anyone is fighting for her…
“It is a hard thing to see your child cry when she knows how hard she has worked to accomplish all that she has and to have it be so unfair to her.”
Williams was annoyed too by Dick’s insistence on repeating at interviews that the former gymnast was injured.
“She is not a doctor,” said Williams. “The medics said ‘you are fine’ (so) I don’t feel she is at liberty to make those statements… I am baffled that she would say that…
“What (the TTGF) did was blatantly unjust and if you’re not against it, you’re for it. I believe that says a lot about character.”
Dick’s suggestion, during a CBC interview in Canada on 13 January 2016, that it was “cut throat time”—two months after Williams was confirmed as Trinidad and Tobago’s sole representative for Rio—may cast a shadow over her for some time yet.
But the gifted gymnast, who was the TTGF’s 2015 female gymnast of the year, executed when it mattered, as she sealed a historic Olympic place for her adopted country on April 17.
And the TTOC decided that it did not have sufficient grounds to stop her from representing “Red, Black and White” in Rio.
It is a memorable day in local gymnastics. Even though many may not feel like celebrating.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read the TTOC’s full statement at its mid-morning press conference.