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Carpetbagging in gymnastics —matter of national pride

Monday, May 2, 2016
Dirt Under the Nail

Marisa Dick repeats in all her interviews a very well-rehearsed statement that, despite all the “negative support,” she hopes that people will just be glad that Trinidad and Tobago is being represented at the Olympics. Should we be glad, if in fact it does come to pass? 

Let’s put all the bobol aside. Would the citizens of T&T support Marisa Dick if she had obtained the Olympic spot fair and square, despite the fact that she was not born, nor bred, nor educated, nor trained in gymnastics in T&T? 

The answer would be a probable yes, albeit, I suspect, with considerably less zeal and passion than we supported athletes like Keshorn Walcott, George Bovell, Cleopatra Borell, Hasley Crawford and Njisane Phillip who came out of the soul and earth of Trinidad and Tobago. These athletes we saw as truly our own, from the loins of La Trinity…sons and daughters of our own making. Marisa…not so much. 

An athlete with a Trinidadian passport can represent T&T on the international stage. However, one who has not been born, who has not lived or been educated, or who has not participated/trained under local tutelage in local circumstances cannot be considered a product of what the country has to offer. 

There are many situations where athletes compete under the flags of other countries. They are known as “carpetbaggers,” a term originating from the US Civil War era meaning “an outsider; especially: a nonresident or new resident who seeks private gain from an area often by meddling in its business or politics.” The reasons for carpetbagging are varied, but one constant is a symbiotic relationship between the athlete and the country of representation, usually (for the country) for political gain rather than national pride. 

For the athlete, representing another country offers the opportunity of a lifetime, which they would otherwise not have had in their home country, often due to fierce competition for Olympic spots. It is frequently a case of inferior athletes competing for countries that may not even have the sport at all!! Take for example, Vanessa Mae, who is renowned for her skills as a superb international techno-acoustic violinist, and less well known for her ability to ski. Born in Singapore to a Thai father and raised in London, she competed in Alpine Skiing for tropical Thailand in the Sochi Winter Olympics, thanks to Daddy’s passport.

More sinister carpetbagging occurred in the 2012 London Olympics, where Bulgarian weightlifters Boyanka Kostova and Valentin Hristov represented Azerbaijan for a fee of over $500,000. Bahrain and Qatar also import Kenyan runners as well as Bulgarians. In 2000 Qatar bought an entire eight-person weightlifting team in exchange for citizenship and $1,000,000. 

However, this raises questions of integrity. The Olympics prides itself on representing qualities of sportsmanship. Perusal of the Olympic Charter shows the great emphasis it places on “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” and fair play. The role of the International Olympic Committee, and by extension the TTOC, is to “encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport,” and must “take action against all forms of manipulation of competition and related corruption.” I am quite certain that, given the above scenarios, and the current one in T&T, some carpetbaggers do not meet this criteria for an Olympic ambassador. It seems that the IOC (and now the International Gymnastics Federation) may not be as formidable in their approach to ethics and corruption as their Charter suggests. 

This is not Trinidad’s first situation of carpetbagging. Enter Chris Birchall, a member of the 2006 Soca Warriors Team who scored the equalising goal against Bahrain, which assisted T&T in qualifying for the World Cup in Germany. His mother was Trinidadian, but he was born, raised and trained in the UK, and received permission to play for T&T based on “me mum”. Some will rightfully argue that without his carpetbagging, we would never have made it to Germany. But football is a team sport, and supporters of Birchall’s involvement can easily win the argument in that vein, especially since local Dennis Lawrence scored the winning goal in the second match. However, would qualification have happened without Chris Birchall? 

Carpetbagging does have its pros, as in the Chris Birchall case. Marisa Dick’s argument is that her carpetbagging will allow T&T gymnastics to be represented at the Olympics. True. But there is a bigger issue. Let’s reverse the positions of Thema and Marisa in the World Championship in 2015. Let’s say they both qualified for the Rio Test Event, but Marisa placed higher than Thema, and based on the contract, Marisa, who received the higher score, would go to RIo. Now think…as a Trinbagonian, would you rather a carpetbagger who has no connection to us, except Mommy’s passport, represent T&T? Or would you prefer someone from our own loins, one who we have moulded, who still obtained qualifying, albeit lower, scores? 

A difficult decision for many people, but I believe that national pride plays a much larger role than just placement in a competition and qualifying scores. In the end, what brings a country together is national pride, as evidenced by the Soca Warriors in 1990 and 2006. Furthermore, in these times of recession, crime, and the downward spiralling of personal morals, evidenced by the bottomless potholes dug by the TTGF along the road to Rio, national pride is more important than ever in this matter. 

My point is that the criteria for selection of foreign nationals cannot just be qualifying scores and a passport. In all matters of carpetbagging, the country of representation needs to carefully weigh the pros and cons for the country given the current social and political climate, and the situation of the athlete, all in the context of the Olympic Charter before deciding on representation. It is not simply a case of using Mommy’s passport. Where one draws the line regarding representation is very grey, and possibly should be considered on a case-by-case basis…unless you’re India which prohibits foreign nationals from representing the country altogether.

A fundamental goal of Olympism is the “promotion of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Sport is supposed to unite, not divide. The TTOC needs to carefully consider what their decision will mean to the people of Trinidad and Tobago, especially given our grave current social climate. Care should be taken not to insult the population, but rather promote unity. What does carpetbagging mean to the citizens of T&T? How does TTOC value national pride? We shall soon see…

Carla Rauseo, DPT, CSCS, ATRIC is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Certified Aquatic Therapy Rehabilitation Instructor at Total Rehabilitation Centre in San Juan.


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