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For Trinidad & Tobago, the Olympics Gymnastics Furore Is About Perceived Corruption

Screenshot of a YouTube video of gymnast Marisa Dick competing at the 2015 World Qualifications in the Uneven Bars.

Screenshot of a YouTube video of gymnast Marisa Dick competing at the 2015 World Qualifications in the Uneven Bars.

In the latest turn in the Trinidad and Tobago gymnastics drama, some netizens seem irritated that a blogger from outside the twin island republic appears to be lecturing them on how they should react to — and report on — an issue that has wider ramifications in their own country.

Lauren Hopkins, the US-based founder and editor-in-chief of gymnastics news website The Gymternet, recently posted an article that attempted to clarify the controversy surrounding the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation's (TTGF) choice of Marisa Dick, who was born in Canada but holds dual citizenship, to compete for a spot at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro over Trinidad-born — and higher ranked — gymnast Thema Williams.

Williams met the TTGF's qualification criteria by placing higher than Dick at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow, but was yanked by the federation at last minute — while she was already in Rio for the Olympics Test Event — over an injury, ostensibly in the athlete's best interests. Williams had faced a disciplinary committee a few weeks prior over a topless photo she posted on Instagram. Dick had similar proceedings brought against her for a topless photo of her own.

Many in Trinidad and Tobago believe the federation's decision was illegal, and Williams and her team plan to take legal action against them. According to her contract, her removal from competition could only happen after her coach and medical personnel were consulted, but the TTGF president himself admitted not everything happened as it should. Allegations have also swirled that two members of the federation have conflicts of interest that favor Dick over Williams.

Trinbagonians know all too well the effects of living in a society where the perception of corruption is high. While some social media users in Trinidad and Tobago did share the Gymternet post, using it to explain why they supported Dick, other commenters were irked by it for seeming to belittle the implications of the TTGF's decision to pull Williams:

It’s important to note that the TTGF’s initial selection procedure wasn’t legally binding and that since the test event spot was a non-nominative one – meaning it belonged to the federation, not to the athlete who earned it for the federation – there is no [International Gymnastics Federation, the governing body of competitive gymnastics] rule in place that says the TTGF had to select Williams for the spot based on her worlds finish. This seems to be a topic of confusion for most reporting on this event in Trinidad, but even though the TTGF had originally decided to select an athlete based on worlds finishes, its directors and decision-makers had every right to change their minds.

Lasana Liburd, the sports journalist who heads biting news and sports site Wired868, which Hopkins suggests is a “pro-Williams publication”, took issue with The Gymternet's understanding of the situation. The claim that “no other successful, experienced federation selects gymnasts based on a single score six months in advance” is untrue (the United States selects its gymnasts based on a single trial event), according to Liburd.

But more importantly, Liburd said, the TTGF's decision was legally binding, as it was a written agreement and not a mere “promise”, as Hopkins's post implied. Hopkins maintains, however, that in her experience, situations like this happen all the time.

‘These are the facts of the story’

The Gymternet post listed several facts related to what the author calls “one of the most ridiculously juvenile fights in gymnastics history”. William's coach John Geddert had written in a report to the TTGF that Williams was struggling in training due to a sore ankle. The TTGF allegedly attempted to reach him for clarification, but said his response time was slow. As the International Gymnastics Federation rule states athletes cannot be withdrawn less than 24 hours before the qualification date and that deadline was fast approaching, the TTGF went ahead and pulled Williams (though the post didn't weigh in on whether proper procedure was followed, and Geddert claims he never received the TTGF's calls).

Geddert left unexpectedly from the Olympic Test Event in Rio due to family reasons. Williams’ legal team attempted to fight the decision in vain (and she had no recourse through the International Olympic Committee's Tripartite Commission). Dick competed in her place and qualified for the Olympics, and the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee decided to support the TTGF's choice of Dick (which the TTOC later admitted they did under duress).

Hopkins defended her summary with the following:

These are the facts of the story. Obviously there’s a lot more woven throughout, and there is a long history of the TTGF’s close relationship with Dick that has led to shady dealings and preferential treatment, but this is the bare bones list of what happened, plain and simple. The situation is seemingly innocent up close – gymnast struggles in training, federation decides she should be replaced, new gymnast comes in and everything works out in the end. Of course, it’s horrible for the original gymnast set to compete, but that’s life […]

But to Trinidad and Tobago netizens, the post seemed to misunderstand that the issue isn't about a squabble between two gymnasts wanting to go to the Olympics and there being only one spot, but has to do with the TTGF's decision and whether it followed due process.

Or, in the words of one social media user who I spoke to and who wished to remain anonymous, “it is about cronyism, nepotism and a startling lack of transparency within the gymnastics federation.” The source was also of the opinion that in many instancesnot just gymnastics — the primary interest of sporting officials in Trinidad and Tobago lies in leveraging athletes’ talents to jockey for money, in the form of trips and funding.

Other Facebook users echoed this sentiment. Natasha Ramnauth said:

Dear TTOC, stop hiding behind the [International Gymnastics Federation], grow some balls and send NO ONE. We'd respect you a lot more. True congratulations would then be in order for Azerbijan, the next ranked country but it would demonstrate to your constituent associations that we had some integrity and moral fibre and that we will not tolerate the underhand tactics that prevailed in this selection. Oh wait! I forget, in TnT those are four letter words.

It's about corruption, not Williams or Dick

Several social media users agreed with The Gymternet when it came to its lament about both the mainstream and social media backlash against Marisa Dick. The Gymternet said on Twitter:

It is worth mentioning that many netizens have been very careful to call out bad behaviour and steer clear of bashing Dick. In fact, even as Wired868, which has followed the story closely, attempted to sort out the timeline of events and uncover the truth about the TTGF's process, it acknowledged Dick's talent and achievements.

For Trinidad and Tobago, this debacle has mushroomed into much more than whether Williams gets to go to the Olympics. The bigger issue is alleged corruption in sport. Even under the hashtag #ThemaOrNothing, which at first glance could appear to be anti-Dick, most of the commentary centred around dissatisfaction with the TTGF board and concerns about poor governance:

In a television interview with sports reporter Robert Dumas, Williams said both she and Dick “were just pawns in the TTGF's game” and she does not blame Dick for what happened. Williams made it clear that if their roles were reversed, “in light of how the decision was made and the injustice that took place”, she would have stepped down — but she also emphasised that she doesn't endorse any hate campaign against Dick. To her, the issue is not about “Team Marisa” or “Team Thema”:

People are missing the bigger picture. This is a situation in which a federation has been unjust, they have been absolutely biased, and […] I have been able to open the eyes of the public to the struggles that some athletes experience on their journey toward their goals.

Hopkins’ post concluded that “the story here is not one of conspiracies or villains. It’s one of conflicting interests in a situation where not everyone can get what they want.” But when it comes to corruption, Trinidad and Tobago netizens are intimately familiar with conspiracies and villains — and social media gives them the power to speak out.

Read more of our special coverage: Joy, Disappointment and Injustice at the Rio Olympics

  • Pingback: For Trinidad & Tobago, the Olympics Gymnastics Furore Is About Perceived Corruption - Trinidad and Tobago Online()

  • I think people also need to put into context that the writer is very young and clearly quite passionate, but has not taken the time to fully explore the facts. She’s accepted certain positions as fact based on hearsay and used it to form/support her opinions.

    When confronted on some of these, she apparently pulled them from her story, but provided no retraction, and deleted her tweets admitting to same.

    Unfortunately she did, as you say, miss the most significant issue to Trinis, which is that the public is completely fed up of the nepotism, cronyism and corruption they’re faced with daily, and have held up this case with some hope of justice and redemption for a society.

    • The Gymternet

      Actually, I delete all replies as well as a lot of my own nonsense tweets (like reactions to sports games and movies, etc) in order to keep my account clean with mostly vital info…I’ve done this for years so I can find what I’m looking for when I need it and don’t dig through the trash. I tweet probably 20+ times a day but if you look through my history maybe 2-5 actually end up staying.

    • The Gymternet

      The one item on which someone confronted me, related to saying Thema’s mother leaked emails, I deleted from my story because I realized the person who had originally posted that – a radio station I later learned to carry bias – wasn’t credible. I happened to remember that info from when it was originally posted in Oct or Nov 2015 and posted assuming it was common knowledge. But when I learned that there was an issue with this, I immediately apologized and deleted it from my story.

      There are multiple pieces of this story. Corruption is one, but the direction I took – following FIG rules and the notion of national pride – are others. I chose not to look into the corruption aspect because frankly I didn’t have the time to comb through hundreds of pieces of “evidence,” most of which were not actually evidence. I stuck with the rules of the sport because they’re what I know, and as other people have said in the comments here, both the guy who writes for Wired868 as well as this author above have gotten many facts about gymnastics wrong (the U.S. selection process for one, the fact that Thema was given a full scholarship to U of M when it was actually MSU, incorrectly stating that Thema could possibly get the tripartite spot, incorrectly stating that if Marisa earned the spot it could still go to Thema, incorrectly stating that an accreditation must be physically turned in by one athlete before the other can claim hers…almost every piece of information related to gymnastics rules has been incorrect or misinterpreted). My point was to clear up some of those rules, to share why – no matter how corrupt the TTGF may be – they still didn’t break any that could cause the FIG to discipline them (and the FIG has disciplined federations for far less egregious infractions).

      Following the gymnastics aspect to the story, I stated my personal thoughts about national pride, because there was a similar situation with Belarus last year. I read an article by a Trinidadian writer about “carpetbagging” – – and it reminded me a great deal about the Belarusian gymnasts watching Americans take their spots at worlds (and subsequently the Olympic Games). After speaking to several Trinidadian fans of the sport who were embarrassed at how people were treating this, I chose to focus on this angle rather than the corruption angle because I found it interesting and, as I said, I didn’t have the time to go into a full investigative report.

      Every story has multiple angles. I wrote mine, this writer wrote hers, that fool at Wired868 wrote his libelous and defaming angle. Corruption is part of this story. The rules of gymnastics are part of this story. National pride is part of this story. Marisa and Thema being used as pawns is part of this story. Not one reporter is going to include all nuances for a fully unbiased and all-encompassing piece. While my piece seems biased toward the TTGF (despite my personal bias toward Thema) it’s only because they did at the end of the day follow the FIG’s rules, like it or not. I get the feeling that most of you who were upset with me DON’T like that they followed the rules, which is why you attempt to keep digging for further infractions and conspiracies that simply don’t exist (like the editing of an FIG athlete profile to remove a coach, lol…this happens all the time, and Lue Shue was only added in as an assistant because her club coach didn’t have a visa…he’s not her actual assistant coach, so why would he remain on her profile?).

    • Candy Rain

      “I think people also need to put into context that the writer is very young and clearly quite passionate, but has not taken the time to fully explore the facts.”

      I don’t see what the Gymternet writer’s age has to do with anything. I thought her article was well-written and a welcome break from the sensational, emotional reporting on this issue in the local media.

      The woman was not interested in all the bacchanal. She made it clear many times in the comment section on her blog that she was seeking to clear up misconceptions about the rules surrouding the sport.

      If she misses the most significan issue, we also missed the fact that no federation chooses an athlete based on a single event six months out. That is crazy. But were we willing to entertain common sense?

      I don’t know who are the jokers running the TTGF, but they should have done their homework and we should never have had to deal with this nonsense to begin with.

  • Michelle Kates

    Actually, the US does not select its team based on one event – Olympic Trials are the final event but gymnasts are chosen based on a series of events, including (but not limited to): six national team camps from January through May in the Olympic year, the American Cup, the Jesolo Trophy, Pacific Rim Championships, the U.S. Classic, U.S. Championships, AND Olympic Trials. There is a formula that goes into play taking all of these meets into account.

    Only ONE gymnast out of the eight given spots on the team or as reserved is an automatic selection – the top gymnast based on two days of competition at Olympic Trials. The remaining seven are selected based on a combination of scores from meets held over a six-month period. Liburd has erroneously stated several rules and procedures that have all been incorrect, so why you use him as a source is beyond me.

    For someone writing an article trying to discredit another journalist, you might want to check your own facts.

    • Adam Gibson

      Lasana Liburd is a pretty standard journalist. Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he gets it wrong but he’s not immune from having an agenda and he is quite often ‘selective’ with facts, especially when he needs those facts to jive with his opinion…

      It comes as no surprise that he has been selective with certain information in this case…

  • Michelle Kates

    You linked to the rules about U.S. Olympic qualification but failed to accurately state them. They are as follows:

    Athletes will qualify to the Olympic Team in the following manner.

    1. The individual all-around champion from the combined two-day competition at the U.S. Olympic Trials automatically qualifies for the U.S. Olympic Team. (THIS IS THE ONE AUTOMATIC SPOT)

    2. The remaining four athletes and up to three replacement athletes will be determined by the selection committee from among the competitors at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

    3. The final U.S. Olympic Team and replacement athletes will be announced at the Olympic Trials, pending approval by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

    4. Petitions to the Visa Championships and/or U.S. Olympic Trials will be considered by the selection committee from among athletes who have legitimate injuries, illness, or unusual circumstances and who have demonstrated a high level of international potential within the last year. Athletes are not eligible to petition directly to the Olympic Team.

    To someone like you unfamiliar with the sport, it must sound like Olympic Trials is the one determiner of the Olympic Team, as the rule states competitors must be AT Olympic Trials, but what you failed to understand based on this shortlist is that competitors must qualify TO Olympic Trials based on a series of meets and internal tests in a six-month period. Olympic Trials are but a mere final step in the process. The U.S. selection committee’s procedure does not state that a single score based on one competition guarantees them an Olympic team spot, which is why McKayla Maroney – who placed seventh at Olympic Trials in 2012 – received one of the five team spots while Elizabeth Price and Sarah Finnegan – who placed fourth and sixth, respectively – did not.

  • Michelle Kates

    Furthermore, the U.S. Olympic Trials are three weeks prior to the Games, giving them a clear understanding based on the athletes’ history over the past several months who is likely to end up receiving a spot. In 2012, 80% of the team had been pre-selected prior to Olympic Trials because the selection committee knew who would most realistically contribute based on the other several meets throughout the season. There is no country in the world that has a selection procedure that states that athletes will be selected six months prior to a major competition based on a single meet.

    • The Gymternet

      Yes, exactly, it’s a process and there are multiple steps leading up to Trials. Someone who hits all year long could fall at Trials and still make the team because her overall history leading up to that meet is taken into account. I’ve never seen a federation select based on one meet before in my life. It’s absolutely the worst way to decide. Gymnast A could get scores of 55, 54, 56, and 57 all season while Gymnast B gets scores of 53, 52, 51, and 50. Then on the one “selection day” if your policy is to base it off of a single meet and Gymnast A has a fall to get a 53 while Gymnast B has her best day ever to get a 54, then Gymnast B gets it despite not actually being the better choice. This just isn’t how it’s done, and the T&T was stupid for making that rule to begin with.

  • Michelle Kates

    If you read through the comments on The Gymternet, you’ll see that the only people disagreeing with this process are those who are admitted Thema fans. People who are smart about the sport of gymnastics have all agreed with this blogger’s remarks. People who are biased toward Thema are searching for needles in a haystack to make their narratives fit their desire for her to be on the team.

  • Jyosef

    Oh, look at the author. More shotty journalism from her! And don’t even get me started on Liburd. He should probably stick to football.

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