19th March 2019

International Women's Day: Officials - Tess Ptonka

24 March 2019 

International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March every year and is a focal point in the movement of women’s rights.  This year’s campaign theme of #BalanceforBetter is a call-to-action for driving gender balance across the world. 

Athletics prides itself on being a gender balanced sport and our officials play a major part in achieving this, where currently there are 59% male and 41% female officials in the UK.  In support of International Women’s Day 2019, throughout March, we will feature Officials across the UK to celebrate them and their commitment to athletics. 

Tess Ptonka 

What is your role as an official?
I currently officiate in photo finish – capturing and reading T&F sprint, middle and long distance events and endurance road races. There aren’t many of us girls working on this at the moment, especially in the Technician role, so that’s what I’m training up as at the moment – actually being able to set up the cameras, transducer, clock and beam equipment. 

How long have you been officiating?
I began in January 2017 when I was invited to a selection day through England Athletics and Seiko. I did really well on the day and was then invited back by Seiko to join their freelance Timing Technician Team. My first job was at the IAAF World Relay Championships in The Bahamas – not a bad gig to start with! I now officiate at many local events in and around Manchester, especially at the Manchester Regional Arena, Etihad Campus (where my paid day job is based), Trafford AC and Leigh Harriers AC.

 What inspired you to become an official?

I started running and joined an Athletics Club when I was 11 years old and as I’ve got older I’ve wanted to continue being involved in athletics in various roles. I work as the Athletics Programme Manager in Manchester and I’m a volunteer Run Director at Alexandra Park Moss Side junior parkrun. I also guide Visually Impaired Runners and deliver the Guide Running course for England Athletics so I am extremely involved in all sorts of Athletics events. Officiating seemed like a sensible and obvious thing to get involved with as well. Plus I get to see some amazing performances and work with a great bunch of other officials, both at grassroots competition level (for example, The Greater Manchester T&F Championships, The Sale Harriers Indoor Series and BMC events) and at International events, such as The IAAF World Championships (London 2017) and The IAAF Half Marathon World Championships (Valencia 2018).

What would you say to anyone wanting to get into officiating?
Just do it! It’s a great way to learn all aspect of athletics and not just your event. For example, I was always a middle distance runner (800m/1500m) yet I’ve now learnt about all the events, even though I may never have actually tried them. For example, I seem to know everything about pole vault now, yet I’ve never even held a pole!  

It’s also a fab way to make loads of friends, get valuable experience of working in team environments and you often get a free lunch or T-shirt! Plus, you never know where your officiating journey will take you – I’ve been fortunate enough to officiate at World Championships in The Bahamas, London, Valencia and I’m off to Doha for the Worlds in Sept/Oct 2019. But it’s important to remember that even though those International events sound amazing, it’s really important to also put in the hours in your local community – that’s where you make your initial friends and contacts and those International events are just the icing on the cake. 

It’s also worth mentioning that working on the International events can be extremely stressful, particularly in timing and photo-finish as one press of a button sends direct information to millions of TV viewers around the world – we’ve timed world records so we can’t get those wrong! So the official role I do does require a calm, organised personality. However, if that’s not for you, there are so many different roles that you can get involved in so you can pick what suits you as an individual. And obviously what you like and will have fun with.

What has been the highlight of your officiating career?
I will probably have to say working as part of the timing team at the IAAF World Championships in London. London is my home city (I was born and raised in Hanwell, Ealing) so to work there and see record attendance at the stadium day in, day out was amazing! However, I have lived in Manchester for nearly 20 years now and I’m proud to be half northern, half southern now. 

My other highlights have to be when I see the excitement on athletes’ faces when they see their finishing time pop up on the clock at regional Athletics meetings that I officiate at and they realise they’ve achieved a PB or target time. Knowing I’ve helped them in that little way to get excited and inspired makes me happy!

What can we do as a sport to achieve a #BetterBalance in officiating?

I seem to be the only girl currently learning about how to set up photo finish equipment in my area. There are a few girls that are very good and highly competent at the read and capture element of photo finish (software) but not on the set up and maintenance of the actual equipment (hardware); where we like to walk around in combats with a screw driver and spanners in hand, fixing things. I really love doing this but apart from me, it’s men who bombard you with technical jargon all the time. I think having a few more girls like me who can help inspire other girls would be a start as not every young girl wants to spend time with men that could be their dad or grandad and don’t really understand where they’re coming from. For example, I could easily teach a girl how to set up a camera whilst talking about the latest tunes (as I’m just about young enough to still listen to Radio 1 or Capital!).

Girls are very rounded nowadays and can put their minds to anything, so that’s a really important message to get out there as a sport. Just because a few officiating jobs are still very male heavy, doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way or that girls can’t learn. I think it only takes a few girls to break the norm and suddenly it becomes the norm.

Find out more about International Women’s Day here

If you want to get involved in officiating, find out more information here