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Under Starter's Orders

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Alan Bell Starting
14 April 2010 

Interview with top official Alan Bell, feature as seen in Athletics Weekly Magazine

It is 8.30am on a spring morning and Alan Bell is hard to find. Our appointment to talk over his career in officiating seems to have perhaps fallen by the wayside as we attempt to track him down at his desk in Loughborough where he works as an International Development Coordinator for the Youth Sports Trust.

Eventually he is located quietly working away in a side office, away from his phone, getting in last minute preparations for his day’s presentation to ‘a large group of Head teachers’.

Full of apology for the delay, it is clear Bell has enjoyed a career spent meeting lots of different type of people. He is pleasant, charming with more than a hint of self deprecation in the mix and fully of the personality that we know exists in every corner of the sport of athletics.

A UKA Level 5 official, he has served as one of UKA’s most active officials for many years, This year after 5 years of chairing the Technical committee (the UKA body which leads officiating in Great Britain) he is due to step down this April, but only because he’s ‘had a good go, but it’s someone else’s turn to take the reins for a while’

Yet despite him climbing the heights to be considered the world’s best in what he does, and enjoying responsibilities for ensuring some of sports most famous moments take place, he is able to operate in relative anonymity in the sport. He is easily recognised by athletes across the world, but in many cases, it is just as that familiar face during the tense pre-race preparations of a nervous sprinter.

“I was given the honour of starting all of the 100m races in Berlin,” he said, in reference to last August’s IAAF World Championships where a certain Usain Bolt tore apart the 100m world record for the second year in a row with 9.58 in a memorable final.

“It was an amazing evening, within the space of an hour I was able to congratulate Jessica Ennis on her lap of honour for winning the heptathlon gold, then I started the fastest 100m in history. Close on the heels of that moment I was introduced to Jesse Owens’ granddaughter,” he recalls, almost shaking his head still with disbelief.

But although Bell is obviously amongst the world’s elite in officiating, his story underlines that just about any official can aspire and realistically reach those sorts of heights. He remains convinced that officials in the UK have a better opportunity than their overseas counterparts to progress within the ranks – regardless of how they start working in the sport.

For Bell, his participation in officiating is a story many will recognise, with the expression ‘falling into it by accident’ a popular theme for many. Bell himself enjoyed his athletics primarily as a national standard high jumper, competing for his club North Shields Polytechnic – a track and field haven in a regional dominated by endurance running clubs during the mid 1970s.

As a PE Teacher by day, both areas of his life took a severe knock when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in training seemingly ending his involvement with the sport. But the club were proactive in seeking out ways for Bell to stay involved, and it was then that the question of officiating was first raised.

“I wasn’t interested in coaching – for me it was too much like the day job,” he laughed. “But I remember the late John Kennedy the club secretary climbing into his loft and producing a bag with a couple of guns in it. Back then you wouldn’t bat an eyelid! But I literally started with starting kids races in the park and from that the opportunities grew.

“It was a great era for athletics – especially in the north east and because of the great events that took place at the Gateshead stadium we were on the fringe of all the high level action, and with it came contact with excellent officials from across the UK.

“Key to my development was a guy called Phil Tompkins – one of the most respected starters in the UK. He was massively proactive in encouraging new officials and just having someone with his ability mentor me helped me improve and gave me an appetite for more opportunities.

“It was from there that the more events I did, I got more involved in the officiating set up regionally on the domestic scene. Eventually I was invited onto a national panel of starters which was a great honour.

“If I’m honest this was as far as my ambitions went in starting – I was keen to get as high as I could on a national level – perhaps an offshoot of my competitive days, but didn’t have a particular intention to get involved more than that.”

It is at this point Bell emphasises how fortunate UK officials are, and for him how pivotal this was in his own progression within the sport:

“I’m not sure we really appreciate how lucky we are in this country when it comes to athletics events. You only have to look at the last 20 years or so as an example of what we’ve had on these shores. We’ve averaged two IAAF Grand Prix each year, not to mention all the other high level events, and that is without listing the opportunities we’ve had with major championships.

“We’ve had European Cups (now the European Team champs) world cross countries, world half marathons, Commonwealth Games, World and European age group championships. European and World indoors... the list goes on and on.

“The shop window for officials in this country is superb and it means we are in a key position to benefit ahead of other countries who get the spotlight on them less often. Even without moving from your home patch we host world class athletics 2-3 times a year... that can’t be bad!”