SII Focus 20th April 2016

Analysis: Gymnast appeals against exclusion from Rio Olympics

Gymnast Thema Williams has appealed against a Trinidad & Tobago Gymnastics Federation (TTGF) decision to exclude her from the Rio 2016 Olympics. However, she may be offered a lifeline by the Trinidad & Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC), which argues that it has final say over whether an Olympic spot is accepted or not.

Williams arrived in Rio on Wednesday 13 April (see picture above) for an Olympic test event, however a 16 April TTGF media statement (reproduced below) said that she had been withdrawn due to injuries reported by her coach, John Geddert, following training on the Thursday and Friday. Williams will be replaced by Canadian Marisa Dick, who represents her mother’s country.

The appeal papers (see below) argue that ‘the decision was based on an interpretation of an incomplete report sent by John Geddert without getting his full input or the full report’. The filing argues that Williams is not carrying an injury and is fit for competition, and that the TTGF did not give Williams or Geddert an opportunity to be heard before making its decision.

Following the decision, an email reportedly sent by Geddert said that Williams ‘would be able to perform’ and accused the TTGF of ‘making the change that several have always wanted to make’. Geddert said that the TTGF had chosen to ‘hunt for a negative’ by ignoring the positive remarks in his report for training undertaken on Friday, and accused them of failing to contact him in order to ascertain his view.

Background

It is understood that the controversy over selection dates back to the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, 23 October to 1 November 2015. The TTGF selection criteria outlined that the gymnast with the highest score would be selected as the country’s first ever Olympic representative in Rio. ‘The WAG [Women’s Artistic Gymnastics] gymnast who scores the highest all-around score at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow 2015 will be the athlete selected by the TTGF Selection Committee to move forward to represent T&T at the Olympic Test Event in Rio, Brazil in April 2016’, it reads.

Williams placed 59th in Glasgow, however the TTGF decided to select Marisa Dick instead, who finished 77th in Glasgow. An email sent by TTGF President David Marquez in October 2015, appears to suggest that the TTGF had already decided that Glasgow would be Williams’ last event. The TTGF was forced to select Williams over Dick in November last year, after an appeal by Williams’ mother.

ttgf

However, it is understood that the TTGF then gave both Williams and Dick pre-Olympics contracts which contained a good behaviour clause. On 23 February, Georgette Heinz, claiming to be the mother of a gymnast, sent a photo of Williams without a top on to the local media. The TTGF said it would take action, however investigations by Williams’ legal team could not find the source of the photograph, which Williams had taken down from social media on the advice of Geddert.

“We checked the email address”, Williams’ lawyer, Keith Scotland, told Wired868. “And what we do know (is the email address) was assigned to someone in Arizona. When we reached Arizona, we stopped there. We didn’t want to go any further lest we ended up in Calgary.” This is understood to be a thinly-veiled suggestion that the picture may have been posted by someone connected to Dick, who is based near Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

The TTGF may also have questions to answer regarding its treatment of Dick, who was forced to fly half way around the world in order to compete in a trial with minimal notice. Dick was competing in the Alberta Championships on Friday, and had to make a 11,000km journey to be in Rio on Sunday for the qualifying event. Geddert’s email argued that the decision put Dick in ‘great danger’, as athletes normally arrive in advance to get used to their surroundings and test out the equipment.

It is understood that Dick caught a 7am Saturday flight to Houston, then a connecting flight to Rio. She got off the plane in Brazil at 9:30am on Sunday, was in the gym five hours later, and qualified 55th overall. “I don’t think words can even describe it,” Scott Hayes, president of the Alberta Gymnastics Federation, told the Edmonton Journal. “The amount of energy she would have expended on the trip, then to be able to perform and compete is just amazing that she would have been able to pull it all together.”

Next steps

Williams’ best hope appears to be the TTOC, as the international gymnastics federation (FIG) has already approved its list of artistic gymnasts for Rio 2016, following the TTGF’s last-minute turn around.  At a media conference, TTOC President Brian Lewis said that the TTOC has final say over who represents the country, and is seeking legal advice. In procedural terms, the international gymnastics federation (FIG) must write to the TTOC and ask them if they accept the decision to select Dick for the Rio Olympics. ‘The NOCs have the exclusive authority for the representation of their respective countries at the Olympic Games and at the regional, continental or world multi-sports competitions patronised by the IOC’, reads Article 27.3 of the Olympic Charter.

The British Olympic Association (BOA) faced similar controversy in 2012, when it selected Lutalo Muhammad over Aaron Cook to represent Great Britain in the -80kg taekwondo category at the London 2012 Olympics. Cook was ranked number one in the world at the time, however British Taekwondo  felt that Muhammad had a better chance of victory. Cook’s appeals fell on deaf ears, and Muhammad went on to take the silver medal.

On the face of it, the TTGF has a stronger case than the BOA did, if its assertion that its decision was baed on injury concerns is to be believed. However, the circumstances of the case suggest that there may be more going on. Why was Dick initially selected over Williams, despite finishing lower in the rankings at Glasgow 2015? Who posted the ‘topless’ picture of Williams and why? Why didn’t the TTGF contact Geddert – an internationally respected gymnastics coach – about the condition of Williams?

All of these factors suggest that there may be more going on than meets the eye. Yesterday, the Sports Integrity Initiative reported that the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees (CANOC) had signed up to become a member of the Sports Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA), which was launched by the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS) last week. Its Core Principles outline that organisations under its stewardship must adhere to a number of good governance standards.

It appears, on the face of it, that the TTGF’s conduct throughout this affair has not been consistent with those good governance principles. It remains to be seen what action will be taken.

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