An 18-year-old girl will make history this summer as the first gymnast from Trinidad and Tobago to represent the island nation at the Olympic Games.
Her battle for qualification has gripped the country, but there will be no parades in her honor, no banners to see her off at the airport, in fact, there will be virtually no support for her whatsoever.
Marisa Dick may even be the most hated figure in Trinidad right now.
Most of the Caribbean island’s 1.3 million inhabitants apparently believe that Dick, a Canadian-born athlete, has conned her way into the history books after stealing the Olympic dreams of her rival who was born in Trinidad.
An extraordinary tale of racial politics, alleged collusion, and topless selfies has turned the competition to represent Trinidad at the Olympic gymnastics competition into the nastiest domestic rivalry since the ex-husband of American figure skater Tonya Harding hired a hitman to smash up Nancy Kerrigan’s leg more than 20 years ago.
Thema Williams, who wasn’t yet born when Kerrigan came under attack, qualified for the Olympics—under Trinidad and Tobago’s own rules—by beating Dick at the World Championships in Scotland last year. What happened next was either an unfortunate misunderstanding or a conspiracy to defraud Williams out of her rightful place in Rio.
Williams, 20, was controversially pulled out of last month’s test event in Brazil by the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation hours before it was due to begin. According to some reports, first reserve Dick, whose mother was born in Trinidad, was already mysteriously en route to Rio when a supposed injury struck her teammate.
Williams, who started at a local tots and tumblers in Trinidad before moving to Michigan in the U.S. to train, claims she had not suffered an injury that would have stopped her competing. Regardless of her willingness to continue, word came from Trinidad’s gymnastics HQ in Port of Spain that Dick would take her place in the test event and thus have the chance to qualify for the Games this summer.
Many observers back home in Trinidad felt dirty tricks were at hand.
Mark Pouchet, a former youth Olympics coach and a reporter for the Trinidad Express, said the controversy has sent the entire island into turmoil.
“This is unprecedented in terms of the outrage,” he told The Daily Beast. “The general sentiment on social media is that it should be either Thema or nobody.”
Pouchet said it was impossible to prove what had motivated the gymnastics federation to break its own rules—and its contract with the athletes—in order to send a Canadian to the Games instead of a local girl.
“It seems as though it’s not fair,” Pouchet said. “A lot of it’s still speculation but there are emails that indicate that there was communication between some of the parties and also there was a clear conflict of interest.”
The vice president of the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation (TTGF), which switched the gymnasts, will now reportedly accompany Dick to the Games in Rio as one of her coaches. Ricardo Lue Shue is also said to be close to the Dick family, hosting the athlete and her mother at his home when they stay in Trinidad.
The TTGF did not respond to a request for comment.
Trinidad sporting officials have always insisted that they are trying to ensure the best athlete, Dick, is the one who represents Trinidad. One source claimed that the public was so supportive of Williams because she was “a black girl from tots and tumblers” whereas Dick is a Canadian-born dual citizen with mixed heritage.
The competition between the athletes was heating up. “There’s myself and my teammate Thema Williams and only one of us gets to go to the Olympics so it’s kinda cut-throat time,” Dick told the Canadian Broadcasting Company last year.
The dispute over who would become Trinidad’s first Olympic gymnast crossed over into the mainstream news on the island soon after the athletes were asked to sign contracts that contained an “ambassador clause.”
Topless photos of Williams then emerged online. An old Instagram post featured an arty triptych with the young athlete covering her chest with an arm and smiling at the camera. “The gymnastics board said [to Williams], ‘You’re in big trouble now,’” explained Lasana Liburd, whose Wired868 site has been covering every twist of the saga. “When they did that, somebody released a similar photo of Marisa [Dick] and now the board is in a bind because both athletes have photos out. Suddenly the chase goes cold and they are not interested in the photos anymore.”
Two months later, Williams was still the named Olympic athlete. She was in Rio getting ready to compete at the test event when she got a phone call from her mom, saying she had been pulled by the team. The Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation had cut her after an email from American coach John Geddert that said “training was a disaster” and Williams had a sore ankle.
The federation says it immediately tried to contact Geddert, who coached Jordyn Wieber at the 2012 Olympics, but they were unable to get through. If they had done so, Geddert said he would have explained that their interpretation of the email was “taken out of context.”
With the clock ticking, while they were unable to reach the coach, the federation decided to pull Williams.
Dick said she was forced to step in purely because of Williams’s injury.
“She is not a doctor,” said Williams at a press conference last week. “The medics said ‘you are fine’—I don’t feel she is at liberty to make those statements… I am baffled that she would say that.”
The bitter public spat has transformed into the biggest story on the island despite the country’s historic lack of interest in gymnastics. Everyone now has an opinion on Williams vs. Dick.
“It’s prompted a whole public backlash which has gone so far that some people have said that they would not donate any money to the Olympics at all,” Liburd told The Daily Beast. “It’s pretty emotional at this point in time, maybe it will cool down but right now it’s very emotional.”
Since Dick competed at the test event and qualified for the Games, there’s nothing the coaches can now do to change the name of the competitor. The world governing body Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) confirmed this week that the decision was now final.
The Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis tried to blame to the FIG. “The past few weeks have been grueling and difficult as this situation has taken on very emotional dimensions in the public glare,” he said in a statement. “I make bold to suggest that the FIG, for whatever reasons best known to themselves, took the opportunity to throw the TTOC under the bus.”
In truth, there was little FIG could do after the Trinidadian federation had made their decision that Dick would compete at the test event.
The gymnast whose mount onto the beam while doing the splits has been formally named after her, is under no illusions about her reputation in Trinidad.
“There has been so much hate, especially on social media,” Dick told Newsday.
During a remarkably tough 25-minute grilling of the teenager on the local CNC3 network, Dick appeared to accept that she would never be fully welcomed.
“It would feel really good in my heart knowing that my country is behind me,” she said. “It would help, but I don’t necessarily need it.”
During interviews, the Canada-born gymnast seems moderately repentant and extremely good-natured. That may surprise a few people when you consider that she has just been formally recognized for “the Dick move.”