“Gymnastics is the most popular sport in Trinidad right now,” my coworker with family in the islands told me when I returned to work following the Olympic Test Event last week. “And no one even knows anything about it.”
The drama between Trinidad & Tobago’s two elite gymnasts, Thema Williams, 20, and Marisa Dick, 18, has been ongoing since the two competed at world championships last year. The Trinidad & Tobago Gymnastics Federation, or TTGF, told its athletes that the gymnast to finish with the highest all-around score at worlds would automatically earn the test event spot, a bad decision in hindsight, as it is now responsible for one of the most ridiculously juvenile fights in gymnastics history.
Williams, who had one of her best career all-around performances in Glasgow, defeated Dick by just shy of a point there, rightfully earning the test event spot based on TTGF’s qualification procedures set out prior to the competition. But because the gymnasts were so close, and because anything could happen between worlds and the test event six months away, the TTGF realized that maybe choosing their representative that early on based on a single score wasn’t the best idea. They were absolutely right. It’s a terrible idea. No other successful, experienced federation selects gymnasts based on a single score six months in advance, and the TTGF simply didn’t realize how ludicrous this was until after it had already promised the spot to Williams.
It’s important to note that while the TTGF had the gymnasts sign contracts ensuring that neither could fight the decision should her opponent get the spot, the TTGF’s initial selection procedure did not legally bind them to stick with its decision. 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 FIG 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.
The TTGF thus didn’t “break the rules,” as some press has accused them of doing, though it did unfortunately end up going back on its word. In November, the TTGF stated that it’d rather put the gymnasts through a series of tests, sending them to various invitationals and other smaller meets in the lead-up to the test event in order to choose the gymnast best able to represent the country in April. Naturally, those in Williams’ camp were upset, most notably her mother Helen Adams. Adams went to the media to appeal to the public, discussing the situation with the TTGF and stating that Williams was the “automatic choice” based on the “selection policy established by TTGF.” Her concern was that instead of focusing on preparing for the test event, Williams would now be sidetracked by having to again earn the test event spot, something she thought she’d already won.
With the backlash from the press and from Trinidad’s Olympic Committee, the TTGF caved under pressure, saying Williams could have the spot without being tested in order to focus on her physical and mental preparation for the test event, with Dick to continue training as the alternate. The two gymnasts competed several times early this year, with Williams getting scores of 47.95 at the Houston National Invitational and then a 51.6 at the WOGA Classic while Dick earned a 51.85 to defeat Williams at the WOGA Classic and then went on to pick up a 50.15 in the Challenge division at International Gymnix. While they still looked pretty close in their abilities, Dick seemed to be the more level-headed competitor, something that stands out even more when you consider her track record over the past few years – all six of her all-around finishes have been between a 50.15 and 51.85, a nearly impossible level of consistency, especially compared to Williams’ own 47.95 low and 52.466 high.
But despite Dick looking like the safer option at competitions this spring, the TTGF stuck with Williams, even after an anonymous source leaked a screencap of a long-deleted Instagram photo of Williams posing topless with her arms covering her chest. The TTGF planned to discipline Williams, potentially putting her test event spot in jeopardy yet again, but within days, another anonymous source leaked a similar photo of Dick. The two were again on an equal standing in the public eye, and could again focus on what really mattered – gymnastics – even though the public clearly prefers this drama over the sport itself.
On March 15, the TTGF endorsed its support of Williams along with a disclaimer stating that Williams, who had been unable to train hard surface landings due to a knee injury, could be replaced if her level of fitness in the weeks prior to the event didn’t meet the federation’s standards. The federation was slightly worried, but Williams assured them that she would be prepared. Distractions and nonsense aside, Williams was finally and officially set to represent the country in which she was born, and traveled to compete at the Olympic Test Event in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil with Michigan-based coach John Geddert at her side.
This is where things get dicey and where the only coverage has been entirely biased. Much of the press has taken sides providing only supremely biased and nonsensical yelling rather than factual and accurate journalism. This is especially true of a certain gossipy sports website, a pro-Williams publication which considers itself an expert on gymnastics despite citing FIG rules related to this case that have absolutely nothing to do with the situation (for example, they stated that even if Dick earned the spot, Williams should get to go, despite the test event spots being nominative meaning that they belong to the athlete and not to the federation; they also claimed that Williams should get the tripartite spot for gymnastics despite Trinidad & Tobago not being eligible because they had both already qualified an athlete to Games and even if they hadn’t, the country had 30 athletes at the 2012 Olympics when the rule clearly states that those eligible must have eight or fewer at the previous two Games). Because of this absurdity, I’ve tried to gather everything I’ve been able to piece together in order to share actual facts of what happened.
- Thema Williams attended podium training on Friday April 15. She didn’t look strong there, something remarked upon by several journalists, as well as her coach. In his report to the TTGF, John Geddert wrote: “Podium training was a disaster with six falls on three events. 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.” He went on to state that they limited hard surface landings in training all week because of her sore ankle showing “no signs of recovery.”
- Upon reading this, the TTGF got nervous about Williams’ readiness. After allegedly unsuccessfully attempting to contact Geddert in order to better assess the situation (they reportedly called and emailed him all evening on the 15th), the TTGF made an executive decision to withdraw Williams from the test event and send Dick in her place.
- The FIG rule for replacement athletes prior to qualification states that the federation must withdraw the athlete 24 hours prior to the qualification date, which for the test event was Sunday April 17. Given that the TTGF received Geddert’s email on the afternoon of April 15, it had only a few hours before the deadline was up, and without hearing back from Geddert, had to make an emergency decision to pull Williams.
- The federation submitted its request to the FIG, and the FIG confirmed that the TTGF did in fact meet the deadline “respecting the FIG rules and time limits.” Dick, who was competing at a provincial meet in Alberta, Canada, got the call late Friday night and had her mother take her to the airport immediately.
- The TTGF emailed Geddert at 1:30 am on April 16, informing him of its decision to remove Williams. Geddert did not respond until 5:27 pm the following day, stating that his initial email was “taken out of context,” and that he meant podium training overall was a disaster (despite his specific mention that Williams had fallen six times and that he had asked her to withdraw due to her ankle). Another source says Geddert responded around noon that day, but that email was not released. Either way, there was a lengthy gap between the TTGF contacting him and his response.
- Geddert reportedly got on a flight back home at 8 pm, leaving Williams in Rio, due to “pressing family matters” – his daughter’s boyfriend had sadly passed away and he needed to be at the funeral on Monday.
- Dick arrived in Rio on either Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, shortly before she was expected to compete with zero access to podium training in the arena. Because her club coach based in Canada could not secure a visa in time, TTGF director Richard Lue Shue flew in as her coach.
- There was some attempt at setting up an arbitration on Sunday in order for Williams to win back her spot, but this ended up not taking place.
- Dick competed in the third subdivision on April 17, placing 55th with a score of 51.365 after a solid competition with no major errors. She earned the 29th spot out of the 38 available for individual competitors.
- In a statement made this afternoon, the Trinidad & Tobago Olympic Committee expressed its support of Dick and confirmed that it will send her to represent the country in Rio this summer.
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 – Williams certainly isn’t the first gymnast or athlete to get bumped at the last minute, and she won’t be the last.
At the end of the day, federations need to do what’s best for their programs, and in this case the TTGF really wanted to ensure an Olympic spot. Given Williams’ injuries and multiple podium training falls, they didn’t believe Williams could make that happen. Geddert stated that Williams “would have earned a spot on her worst day,” but on a bad day just two months ago in Houston, she had a 47.95 all-around score. The lowest-scoring athlete to get an Olympic spot at the test event, in comparison, was Ailen Valente of Argentina with a 49.598. The federation had a legitimate reason for concern.
Dick, an innocent party in all of this, a teenage girl with the same hopes and dreams as Williams who personally did nothing wrong, has been vilified by the press. Williams’ supporters in Trinidad blame Dick and don’t want her to represent the country this summer, saying if she’s “not good enough for Canada, we don’t want her either,” and that they’d rather not have a gymnast represent the country at all than have Dick in Rio, with multiple comments on various sites using “Williams or nothing” as their motto. Should Dick turn down the spot, it will go to first reserve Marina Nekrasova of Azerbaijan. One comment on a Wired868 article suggested that all Williams supporters should support Nekrasova instead. “Go Azerbaijan!” the user wrote.
The press and Williams’ supporters are on a daily hunt to seek out legal infractions on part of the TTGF and the FIG, scouring FIG rule lists and posting smoking gun after smoking gun with long-winded but inaccurate explanations as to how Williams has been wronged. But nothing they find is actually an issue. While the TTGF could have done a much better job handling everything from the second it announced the qualification process back before worlds, nothing has been in violation of FIG procedure, and at the end of the day, the TTGF is in charge of making the rules. They’re also the ones to decide when to change or break them.
One reason for the massive Williams love and subsequent backlash against Dick, who has received death threats and required an entourage of policemen for her press conference in Trinidad last week, is fully a matter of national pride. Compare it to the situation last year when two American gymnasts with zero ties to Belarus were announced to represent the team at worlds while the actual Belarusian gymnasts sat at home. The Dick situation is a bit different, because she actually does have familial ties to Trinidad (her mom Hanifer was born there), she has represented the country since the start of her senior career in 2013, and she didn’t buy her way in the way the Americans did. But none of this matters to Trinidadians, who don’t want a representative at the Olympics at all if that person is not all Trinidad.
In Belarus, the attitude of “anything for an Olympic spot” has been heavily criticized by some of the country’s former Olympians, who ask if the Belarusian federation can really be proud of getting a gymnast to the Games if the gymnast has nothing to do with Belarus. The federation looks good for earning a berth to the Games, but how can Belarus feel proud about this accomplishment? Others, including three-time Olympic champion Svetlana Boginskaya, see how the ends justify the means, in that Belarus stands to gain quite a bit in terms of recognition and funding which can only serve to help the future of the sport in that country.
The main difference is that Belarus doesn’t currently have any gymnasts who could have legitimately earned a spot for this summer’s Olympics. Kylie Dickson, who went to the test event for Belarus, has the potential to score higher with falls than any of Belarus’ current seniors can score on a good day, so the decision was between sending an American who could make it happen and sending a Belarusian who wouldn’t get close. In the end, they went with something over nothing, even if that “something” wasn’t ideal.
Trinidad, on the other hand, had two gymnasts who could potentially make it happen – the Trinidadian born-and-raised Williams and the “Trinidadian on the floor, Canadian at heart” Dick, who used this quote on Instagram to describe herself in a post that has of course been screencapped and blasted across the media. Gymnastically, they’re basically equals, going back and forth all quad and virtually capable of competing at the same exact level, with Williams boasting a little more difficulty thanks to her time with Geddert, though Dick has the better head for competition. Gymnastics aside, though? It’s all about Williams. She is their girl, the one who tried so hard to make it four years ago but just didn’t have the skills, the one who moved to cold and snowy Michigan to train with a coach who could take her to the next level, the one who has worked tirelessly ever since to grow beyond what anyone thought possible to perform so well at worlds last year…she is the one they want to see in Rio. Perhaps they’d give Dick some love if she was all they had – much like how other countries like Armenia, Jamaica, and Azerbaijan have embraced outsiders with open arms given that their programs are nonexistent without them – but with homegrown Williams around and ready to go, there’s no contest. To the people of Trinidad, she is the only option.
But the TTGF’s goals and priorities don’t exactly line up with what the people want. As a business with a lot to gain by getting its first-ever berth to the women’s gymnastics competition at the Olympic Games, it’s understandable that the federation has been nervous and jittery throughout this entire process, trying to make the right decisions but resulting in many mistakes along the way. Its directors feared missing out on a second quad in a row, and at the end of the day, were looking out for themselves, going to any length to ensure an Olympic spot would happen. National pride is important to any federation, as sports have been tied up in nationalism and patriotism since the beginning of time. No governing body would actively seek out an “imposter” (or “carpetbagger” as the Trinidadians are referring to Dick) with a viable contender at home. But in a bind with so much to lose if Williams competed the way she performed in podium training, the federation had to act in its best interest. Getting a spot was the top priority for the TTGF in 2016. National pride is a value that will have to wait.
Dick will return to Rio this August as an Olympian for a country that hates her while Williams again sits at home to watch. I can’t imagine training as long and hard as Williams did, only to have a messy situation completely beyond my control rip everything from me (seriously, Geddert, why would you ever say your athlete should’ve withdrawn a week ago?! PHRASING!). But I also can’t imagine being in Dick’s shoes, her own dreams coming true but at the expense of a teammate and friend while the media rips her apart as if she did anything aside from show up at the test event with almost no warning to have one of the strongest meets of her career. Everything good and beautiful about the Olympic experience is going to be tainted for Dick, and that’s just almost as unfair as Williams’ situation.
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. For the TTGF, it’s about doing whatever is possible to finally secure an Olympic berth. For the people of Trinidad, it’s about the pride of seeing an island-born athlete competing in red, white, and black. And for the two gymnasts who worked so hard to set themselves apart as elite athletes in one of the world’s most difficult sports, it’s about making their personal dreams come true. As with anything in life, nothing is a promise or an entitlement and not everyone can win, something both Dick and Williams learned early on as young children just starting out in this sport, which is perhaps why they’re the only ones able to deal with this situation with class and grace.
We wish both of these gymnasts the best of luck in their futures, and hope that they are able to find happiness outside of the negativity brought on by the so-called “adults” in this situation – namely the TTGF, some of the parents and coaches involved, and the media.
As a disclaimer after accusations of being biased toward the TTGF, I am personally Team Thema and have supported her since I first saw her compete at world championships in 2011. I don’t agree with the federation’s decision to reverse their initial decision and I was thrilled when she was officially given the nod. But that being said, I also see the reasoning behind their actions and no matter how they mishandled things, in the end it was nothing more than a business decision. I wish Williams had gotten the chance to compete for her country, but in her absence I support Dick, an equally talented athlete who has done a great deal for T&T in her own right. This is NOT an investigative exposé into all of the TTGF’s wrongdoings. It is a gymnastics rule-based perspective in order to clear up a messy situation at the most rudimentary level.
Article by Lauren Hopkins