They are the people who make athletics meetings possible, but how can a new generation be attracted into officiating?
It’s an age-old problem – quite literally. “We don’t have enough officials.” “They’re all old and we will have no one to replace them when they die.” Such comments reflect what we’ve all long heard when it comes to the people who help make athletics meetings possible. Yet, somehow, they’re still here, the sport is still here, we get by.
But how long, really, can that go on for and what of the future? Could changes in the sport affect our ability to find enough officials and what can we in the UK learn from other countries?
The landscape has already changed, according to Chris Cohen, who is one of the UK’s most experienced International Technical Officials and was competition director at the World Athletics Championships Oregon 22.
The Derbyshire man says the traditional pool of new officials has dried up in that fewer teachers are turning to it. Meanwhile, more parents of athletes are finding their way in, although the sport may need to alter its competition structure to keep that steady influx of volunteers.
Cohen, who has been an official for nearly 50 years, says: “There are people who may be willing to go along to a league match with their son or daughter and be willing to do a couple of hours. Probably we need to structure the system in such a way that it accepts and encourages that rather than discourages it – so instead of having a league match that lasts six or seven hours, then there’s a way of getting those mums and dads in for those two or three hours and encouraging them to stay on and do the whole session [because it’s shorter].”
Shorter meetings may mean more fixtures over the whole summer, however, which would put an upward pressure on the quantity of officials needed. According to UK Athletics’ “UK-Wide Officials Strategy”, published last year to put in place a plan leading up to 2032, the country has around 5000 registered officials, of which about half are active, meaning there are just about enough for a busy weekend, when around 2800 are needed. The document added: “It is becoming more challenging and, therefore, recruitment and retention of officials is vitally important to meet future market demand.”
Technology, youth and payment
Could technological changes in track and field affect the number of officials actually needed for a meeting to go ahead?
“I think the aim is that it will require fewer officials,” says Cohen. Photo-finish equipment is not new but is finding its way down to lower and lower levels, such that significantly fewer timekeepers are now needed. The same will happen with electronic distance measuring and video technology.
Modern software and mobile devices now offer the opportunity for field-event data to be inputted in real-time from the infield, massively speeding up the results process and enhancing the spectator experience.
This facility has been greatly underused due to technophobia among older officials but, notably, younger volunteers were seen to be brought in to help at some meetings this year and such new tech could be a way to bring about an increased take-up of officiating among younger people. An inability to do so may, in fact, hold the sport back.
The vocation has always been dominated by the middle-aged or retired, at least in the UK. Cohen points out, however, that countries such as Spain and Portugal buck the trend.
Antonio Perez Cristobal, who is chairman of national officials for the Spanish athletics federation, says the sport in his country uses technological advancements to change the age profile.
“Now technology is playing a part in athletics and this is more attractive to young people,” he says. “So we try to attract them by giving them the opportunity to work as officials in a digital job, like EDM, photo-finish and video referee.”
The Spanish federation also pays €35-€70 per match, as well as travel and food expenses, to each official. This applies at all accredited meetings, even at the lowest level. It’s a payment structure that might not appeal to those with full-time jobs but might be an incentive for teenagers who want a bit of “pocket money”.
“Okay, it’s not too much but, if you do all four weekends, you could get €200 a month and it’s something which for young people could be attractive,” says Cristobal.
However, he admits that retaining officials is the hardest part, which seemingly contradicts the notion that having younger officials means less of a turnover of newcomers.
The Portuguese federation likewise uses small payments to attract new officials. Samuel Lopes, chairman of the National Judges Council for the Portuguese federation, also credits clearly defined targeting of the recruitment pool and a broad, initially less specific, training programme.
He says: “This means they can start doing all the positions and functions, with a few restrictions of course, for special positions which need more time for training such as starter, photo-finish, race-walking judging.”
Mentoring, e-learning and being flexible to accommodate officials’ preferences were all cited by Lopes as part of a recipe for success, too.
When it comes to paying officials, Cohen notes: “It certainly doesn’t do any harm.” However, recognising that athletics needs a greater volume of officials per competitor than many other sports, he adds: “I don’t think it makes a huge difference. I think treating people well is more important than paying them.”
Thinking outside the box
Finding and retaining officials is certainly not a problem unique to Britain and, of course, other countries could no doubt learn from us, too.
Talking about current ways of attracting fresh volunteers, Shona Malcolm, officials development officer with Scottish Athletics, points out: “We are always looking at ways to recruit officials or progress the education for those who have already volunteered.
“One idea we are working on is to take officials courses directly to clubs, delivering those on club training nights at their venues.
“Doing that keeps it as local as possible which means less travel for the volunteers and the clubs can then target parents who are there at that time with their young athletes.
“We are also creating ‘blended learning’ courses, which involves a large part of online learning. This is helpful for our island athletics communities (Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles) and some people in other parts of Scotland, too. The online learning is mixed with some practical experience
“In endurance, we are looking to recruit more officials in local areas and are working with event organisers to see if we can help upskill their regular volunteers.”
The path to the top
The incentive to officiate at the highest level is what keeps many officials in the sport and Britain does a great job of qualifying its best for international championships and similar.
“Our officials are absolutely top-class,” says Cohen. “Looking around the world, there are few places that match the strength in depth that we’ve got, the number of people at that top level.”
As for the route to reach international level, he says: “World Athletics recognise that, to reach the very top level, it’s going to take a minimum of 10 years from qualifying at the lowest level. But for us to get people on to the international panel then, from beginning in the sport, they can probably do it within 10 years.
“But it requires a commitment. It’s not just a case of turning up once every six weeks, you’ve got to commit to the sport in order to come across all of the incidents that might happen that teach you what you’re likely to face when you get there.”
It’s a pursuit that Cohen himself would recommend. He has been chair of the International Paralympic Committee, an ITO at several international championships and a technical delegate for global events.
“It’s been a great journey and I’ve really enjoyed every minute of it,” he says.
Let’s hope more follow him.
» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine