It all starts with a bang

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The sound of gunfire is the precursor to every great sprint in athletics history, writes Alexis James, yet those pulling the trigger are much more than a hired gun

“ON YOUR MARKS.” At the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin, the field for the 100m final included the fastest man in history. He smiled at the camera and produced his famous pose before accepting the invitation to his blocks. His nervous rivals were beholden to superstition. They jumped on the spot, fiddled with jewellery, sipped water, and prayed.


Over 50,000 fans at the Olympiastadion held their breath, and their phones. They were anticipating the new world record that a global audience of 95 million were about to witness. The sprinters were poised. The world now waited on one man.

His name was Alan.


You may not have heard of Alan Bell, but you’ve almost certainly heard his gun. Now in his 70s, he remains the highest-ranked chief starter in the UK and one of the most experienced in the world. As well as the World Championships he has fired the starting pistol at the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the World Indoor Championships, and the European Championships. It makes him the only international starter to have officiated at every major athletics meeting. And it means that when Usain Bolt cemented his greatness in Berlin, Alan had the best seat in the house.

“That night will probably be the greatest moment of my life, with the exception of the birth of my kids,” he told me when we first chatted in January 2021. “You fire a gun at the World Championship Final, which is not a bad bonus in itself, and the big fella from Jamaica creates history. And nobody has been anywhere near since.”

Hanging on the wall of his study is the certificate that displays Bolt’s name and the astonishing time of 9.58 seconds. As starter, Alan’s signature also appears on there. He was keen to point out that without it, the record would not have been ratified.

“That’s my 17th world record,” he said, before pointing to another framed memento from the night. It was Bolt’s warm-up vest. “My son tells me it should be on eBay. I’ve suggested over my dead body!”

Usain Bolt (Mark Shearman)

A former high jumper who represented England at amateur level in the early 1970s, Alan was forced to retire in his mid-20s when he ruptured the achilles tendon in his take-off foot. “I’m a knackered athlete,” he boomed in a Geordie baritone as loud as his gun.

As a member of North Shields Polytechnic Club, he was invited to help out at a youth track meet. He agreed, expecting to judge the high jump. Instead, club secretary and local bank manager John Kennedy opened a briefcase and handed him a pair of pistols. Alan chuckled at the memory. “I looked at him and said: ‘Mr Kennedy, I haven’t got a bloody clue how to do that!’ He said: ‘Don’t worry, the kids won’t know.’ And I did it.”

Alan was in his 45th season, in 17 of which he had featured on World Athletics’ elite list of officials. Serendipity has played a big part in his ascent. A shortage of starters in his native north-east meant that only days after firing John Kennedy’s gun, he was sitting the required exam in the kitchen of another club official.

The region’s renown as a host to top-level athletics, spearheaded by Olympic long-distance runner Brendan Foster and centred around Gateshead International Stadium, also came at the perfect time for Alan. He had regular exposure to high-profile events in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Sometimes ambition plays no part in what happens to you. Sometimes it’s just good fortune and opportunity,” he said, before adding that he occasionally bumps into Foster for a “beer and a cry over Newcastle United”.

Some of Alan’s earliest experiences at elite meetings were in Gateshead’s call room, where

athletes are checked to ensure they’re abiding by competition regulations. It’s here where they have their bags searched, their spikes checked, their bib numbers distributed, and any non-conforming logos covered with tape.

“Believe me, we used to find some really dodgy stuff in the bags,” said Alan. He described on one occasion being grabbed by the testicles and pinned to the wall after finding a vial in a Russian shot putter’s bag. “I have to be careful with naming some of them,” he added. More in hope than expectation, I told him he couldn’t be sued if the athletes were now dead. “Chances are they will be if they were taking as much as we found,” came Alan’s deadpan response.

Alan Bell (Mark Shearman)

Originally a PE teacher at Benfield School in Newcastle, where he taught a young footballer by the name of Steve Bruce, Alan became a school inspector before moving into the job that would dovetail perfectly with his voluntary role as a starter.

As international development director at the Youth Sport Trust, he worked with the Ministry of Sport to implement programmes all over the world in the build-up to London 2012. The recruitment process for the role saw him interviewed by Baroness Sue Campbell, a day after he oversaw seven false starts in  a single 110m hurdles race at the European Cup.

One of the most powerful figures in UK Sport began their encounter with the question, “Were you the idiot doing the starting at Gateshead yesterday?” Even for someone familiar with explosive starts, it caught Alan by surprise. But it proved to be the beginning of a fruitful relationship and he has since visited over 70 countries combining his developmental work and his role in athletics. 

Now retired from the former, the latter keeps his passport well thumbed. He told me he is planning a six-day trip to Finland for the national championships, having opted against two weeks in Nairobi for the World Under-20 event. When I asked if I might be able to shadow him at a forthcoming meeting, he suggested we meet a bit closer to home. “People think: ‘Wow, you started a big race in Berlin.’ But the skill of starting that race is perfected at the Tyneside Track League in Gateshead or the National Junior League in Birmingham.” 

Blunting Bolt

Two years after his stunning world record in the Olympiastadion, Usain Bolt was once again lining up in the 100m final of the World Athletics Championships. This time the venue was Daegu Stadium, built for the football World Cup in South Korea in 2002. On a sultry August evening, the Jamaican was facing an almost entirely different field to that which he destroyed in 2009.

Other than Bolt, only one man, Daniel Bailey of Antigua and Barbuda, had returned from that historic night in Berlin. Actually, make that two. For Alan Bell was once again the man with the bang.

The false-start rule had again been tweaked. A year before the World Championships, the IAAF voted to remove any clemency for a race’s first offender. It was felt that this privilege was being abused in an attempt to stifle fast-starting sprinters. Those slower out of the blocks could deliberately false-start and put the entire field under pressure. Now there would be no doubt and no margin for error. Anyone who false-started was out.

With the now obligatory pre-race theatre over, all eight finalists took to their blocks with minimal fuss. Daegu, like Berlin, was expectant. This city wanted its own page in history. A hush descended. Enter Alan, stage right. 

“You might find this hard to believe,” said Alan, “but I take no notice of who’s in the race. That’s irrelevant. You’ve got eight bodies, end of.”

Instead, Alan is in his own zone, deep in focus. “I’ve got the best 30-second concentration span in the world. Outside that 30 seconds, I’m all over the place. But I think it’s important to be able to switch on and switch off.”

Only once he deems the time right does he summon the athletes. Contrary to what one might expect, given the pressures of television scheduling and the allocation of seven-minute slots for each 100m race, the intricate pauses between commands are for the starter to dictate in the moment. There is no standardised time between the word “set” and the pulling of the trigger. It is an instinctive call based on the race, and the occasion.

“The real skill in my job is to wait until everybody is at the pinnacle of their set position. When you’re happy that they’ve all had that opportunity to set and concentrate, you pull the trigger. There can’t be a prescribed time,” said Alan. “The chemistry between the nine people involved – eight athletes and the person with the gun – is unique to that event. It has to be entirely based upon what I see, and the judgement of readiness based on my experience. At a major event, between saying ‘set’ and pulling the trigger, I’m holding my breath. Because I’m praying I don’t have to pull the other trigger.’

In Daegu, Alan’s prayers went unheeded. The dreaded beep sounded in his headphones and he instantly fired his recall gun. Although he already knew who was at fault, he waited for the computer printout before confirming the reason for the crowd’s anguish. It showed that the athlete in lane five had moved 0.104 seconds before the gun had even fired. It was as clear a false start as one could see at the highest level. And no one was more aware than the offending athlete himself, having already removed his vest and with his head in his hands. It was Bolt.

Usain Bolt in Daegu (Mark Shearman)

While the crowd squealed in disbelief, the media made hay. “Within a millisecond there must have been 150 cameramen on the track looking to milk his embarrassment,” thundered Alan. “I’ve got to know him quite well as a human being, and he’s a resolute and determined character. But he’s also a really decent guy, and he didn’t deserve that. So I said to the Koreans to get him off the track and put him somewhere that a camera can’t get to him. Let him have his remorse.”

Alan was then put under pressure from Korean TV to get the race back under way. “I said no chance. There are seven people out there now, who think they can win a gold medal. And I’m going to give them every chance to compose themselves again.” An unimpressed floor manager insisted that Alan recommence the race immediately. “He went apes***. He’s in my face, and he’s getting it in the ear from the director upstairs. So I turned to him and said: ‘Here, you start the race’, and I handed him the guns. And of course, he just looked at me. And I said: ‘We wait.’”

Bolt’s training partner and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake was the ultimate beneficiary, becoming the youngest ever 100m world champion at 21 years old. But for Alan, the story didn’t end there. As he did at the end of every day of competition, he had arranged to meet his wife Lesley in the VIP area before heading back to their hotel. Lesley is a level-three athletics official.

On this occasion, he sensed something wasn’t quite right as soon as he arrived. “I’m walking up to row Z and I see that Lesley’s looking at me with a face like thunder. And I’m thinking: ‘She knows I had no choice, I had to disqualify the guy.’ And then I suddenly realise. She’s sitting with Usain’s mam and dad. She’d met them earlier in the week, and they were just sitting and chatting. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”

As Alan made the tentative walk over, Mrs Bolt stood up to greet him. “Usain got his mam’s genes, believe me. I thought she was going to let rip at me. And you know, she was fantastic. All she said to me was: ‘He made a mistake.’ That put me at ease. I said: ‘I hope he can get it out of his system ready for the 200m.’ And she just looked at me and said: “He’ll be ready.” They were great with me. He’s obviously got a lot of that collectedness and stability from his family.”

Six days later, Alan’s recall gun stayed silent for the 200m final. As the slowest runner out of the blocks, the false start in the 100m final had clearly had an effect on Bolt. But he powered around the bend as only he could and he comfortably took gold. “I made a mistake but I came back to show the world that I’m still the best,” said a relieved world champion afterwards.

Alan admitted that disqualifying Bolt was the lowest moment of his starting career. “Not because it was him, at all. But because I was having to disqualify an athlete in the final of the World Championships. It could have been any of them,” he said. “But, like all of the people in that final, they’ll have worked for 15 years just to be there, and it’s sad that you have to apply the rule.”

I asked if, with an expectant crowd engulfing him, an anxious Korean production team on his shoulder, and the world’s media having already written the script, there wasn’t a small part of him tempted to let this generation’s greatest athlete continue. He responded without a moment’s hesitation. “The circumstances were very difficult. But that was the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make.” 

» This is an extract from Unsung: Not All Heroes Wear Kits by Alexis James which is out now from Pitch Publishing. Head to for more

» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine

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