Eleven months after Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis announced that Marisa Dick would represent the two- island republic at the Rio Olympic Games, 21-year-old gymnast Thema Williams and her legal team have urged the body to be transparent about the process used to arrive at their decision.
Martin Daly, SC, the lead attorney for Williams’ legal team, quoted from Tuesday’s judgment by Justice Frank Seepersad, as he explained why the gymnast’s suit against the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation (TTGF) and four of its officials deserved to be heard in High Court rather than by a TTGF arbitration committee.
“There is, therefore, a very evident public interest concern in this matter,” stated Seepersad, “and the selection process for representation at the Olympics is an issue that extends beyond the insular concerns of the parties to this matter and is one in which every citizen has a vested interest.”
Williams became the first Trinidad and Tobago gymnast ever to earn a place at the Olympic Test Event. However, on 16 April 2016—on the eve of the competition—the local gymnastics body controversially replaced her with Canada-born gymnast, Marisa Dick.
And, just over two weeks later, the TTOC ratified the TTGF’s decision and selected Dick to compete at the Rio Olympics.
Daly, who said he was holding his first media conference on an active case in his 50 years of practice, suggested that it was time for the Olympic Committee to answer some questions on its own behaviour.
In particular, “Team Thema” wanted information on how the TTOC used the two-week period between Williams’ withdrawal and their selection of Dick.
“What investigations did they conduct into the Gymnastics Federation’s withdrawal of Thema from the Rio Test Event and from the Rio Olympics before they decided to ratify an athlete to replace Thema?” asked Daly. “On the basis of what information and (information) received from whom did they make their decision to ratify?”
A year since her life turned upside down, Williams said the TTOC never called to hear her account of what occurred in Rio before the Test Event.
“Never. Not once,” said Williams.
However, Daly revealed that documents shared by the gymnastics body during their ongoing court tussle showed that officials from the TTOC and TTGF met regularly before the former party opted to choose Dick.
At the time, Lewis told the media that the TTOC’s decision to send Dick was “significantly influenced” by correspondence from the FIG, which said that the TTGF’s change of athletes did not violate the rules of the international gymnastics body.
Lewis, who was not a member of the TTOC’s games management committee which chose Dick, described the FIG’s intervention as “curious” at the time. But the TTOC went along with it anyway.
“The process by the games management committee in selecting athletes for the Olympic Games was respectfully followed,” said Lewis. “This process entails: confirmation of the eligibility of the athlete, confirmation of the qualification process by the FIG. The TTOC games management committee has therefore ruled that the TTOC has no choice but to include Marisa Dick in the Team TTO Rio 2016 declaration.
“I repeat, the decision was significantly influenced by the FIG letter of 29 April 2016, which speaks to the legality of the process of the selection of the named athlete…”
However, Daly suggested Team Thema was dissatisfied with Lewis’ explanation since it appeared to abdicate his organisation’s own responsibility. He noted that the TTOC had “exclusive jurisdiction over entry into the Olympic Games of an athlete proposed by a recognised sporting federation.”
And he further pointed out that the TTOC’s charter said: “Any form of discrimination with regard to country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.”
Daly said he intentionally avoided mentioning any names in the media conference, so as to avoid personalising the issue. However, he appeared to reference Lewis on several occasions, including a column by the sport administrator—published two days ago in a daily newspaper—which opened with, “How do we start living an awesome life?”
“We feel we need to hear from our Olympic Committee apart from telling us in the newspaper how to have an awesome day,” said Daly. “That is a little troubling for us, of course, because during the course of Thema’s withdrawal, she had some un-awesome days—I can tell you that—as did her parents and all her support people.”
Williams, a former St Joseph’s Convent student, said she has not decided whether she would ever compete in gymnastics again. At present, she is working as a coach at her old club, Tots and Tumblers, as well as at another gym.
Otherwise, she said she is exploring other talents.
“In terms of my athletic career, I have not yet made a decision,” said Williams. “It’s been a lot so I am still undecided. I’m exploring the fashion world [and] my artistic side.
“That has been one of the ways I have been able to cope with the entire situation.”
Daly and Keith Scotland, who is also representing Williams along with Dr Emir Crowne, stressed that they currently have no legal action against the TTOC and did not plan to initiate any. As such, they felt it would be inappropriate to approach the sporting body for answers.
All the same, they hoped the media would get answers for questions that continue to trouble Team Thema.
Nine questions for the TTOC:
What investigations did they conduct into the Gymnastics Federation’s withdrawal of Thema from the Rio Test Event and from the Rio Olympics before they decided to ratify an athlete to replace Thema?
On the basis of what information and (information) received from whom did they make their decision to ratify?
We know they intended to meet with the Federation and were in frequent touch with the Federation’s attorneys. Did they make the decision to ratify the replacement athlete on a one-sided basis?
When it met on 30 May 2016 to “consider all the issues”—their words—what issues did they consider?
Before ratifying another athlete to take Thema’s place, did they consider and apply their stated principles to “preserve human dignity” and their own recognition that “any form of discrimination with regard to country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”?
Why did they hustle to ratify the replacement athlete on 2 May 2016—a whole week before 9 May 2016 which was the deadline for doing so?
Why (did they) not use that extra week to pursue investigations into Thema’s withdrawal?
Did they yield voluntarily to the threat of a lawsuit from the Federation despite the strong hand of powers that they held in respect of their exclusive jurisdiction to decide upon the entry of athletes proposed by a recognised sporting federation and to ratify an athlete to compete in the Olympic Games?
Can recognised sporting federations do whatsoever they please without intervention from the TTOC?