This is what a day in the life of an Olympic Race Starter really looks like…

A former athlete himself, Chief Race Starter Alan Bell is one of six Running & Athletics Officials who have the credible qualifications and experience high enough to start any athletics race in the world. With title of Chief Starter under his belt for the 2012 London Olympics, Alan Bell is a man with quite a notorious connection to sprint legend Usain Bolt. Bell was the race starter for the 100m Final at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics Games, both won by Bolt. He also started the 100m Final at the 2009 and 2011 World Championships, the latter being where he had to disqualify Bolt for a false start. Bolt won both the 2008 and 2009 races in World Record time.

As part of England Athletics’ new Officials: The Beating Heart of Athletics campaign, Alan Bell is urging sports fans to become running and athletics officials and, like himself, be at the heart of the action at events across the country.

Here he tells us what a typical day looks like for him…

My alarm goes off…

very early! Living in rural Cumbria usually means I face a very long day of travel ahead of me depending upon which event I am officiating at. Being a Level 5 Official means I can be a Chief Starter at a smaller, local event all the way up to the Olympics and World Championships.

I’m responsible for…

starting the race for the athletes. There are plenty of different officiating roles but this is the one I love. When I first became an official in 1975 (following retirement as an athlete due to injury), there was only one race starter in the North-East, so I jumped at the opportunity to be the second one in the region.

My typical officiating day involves…

I make sure I have all the equipment I need, including the electronic starter guns, packed in a bag and I travel off to the day’s stadium. Once I arrive at the stadium I register with the people managing the event, and walk the course. Even if you know the track having worked there before, you should always walk the course because things can change (e.g weather) or the demands of a particular event might be different. I then meet with the rest of the officiating team and we have a briefing so that we know what our responsibilities are for the day.

When the event starts, I am responsible for starting a number of races. I wait until all the athletes are in position on the track in their respective lanes, and I count down and set off the gun (electronic now) to mark the start of the race. I also need to ensure that there are no false starts. Throughout the event we will always support all the officials and make sure everything is running smoothly.

Once all the races have been completed the first item on the agenda is a good cuppa tea! We then all spend time together talking about the day’s event and just generally having a bit of banter amongst ourselves. The Officiating community is a really strong community and we all know each other, as we commit to travelling to different events around the country to play out our different roles. When I’ve reached the comfort of my own home I then like to reflect upon the day and think about how I might next develop my practice as a result of a good day’s work.

I became an official because…

I was once a former athlete who competed as a National Standard High Jumper, until I ruptured my Achilles tendon aged 24. I was absolutely gutted that I could no longer compete, but my Club Secretary encouraged me to get involved with the events and support the officials managing the races. I wanted to stay involved in the sport that I loved so I jumped at the opportunity and here I am over 40 years later aged 68! I worked my way through the ranks by volunteering my time at as many events as possible (from local level to professional events).

My most memorable officiating moment…

well it definitely has to be being the Chief Starter for the 2012 London Olympics! There was an Olympic selection panel who received nominations of officials who should be considered to take a position at the Games. Of the 400 officials put forward, only 170 officials were chosen and I was given the title of Chief Race Starter. I have visited over 70 countries starting races for the IAAF, but I have never cried or felt as emotional until the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics when I felt really overwhelmed at having played a role in the Olympics in my home country. I was also the Chief Starter at the race where Bolt broke his world record for the 100m event in Berlin – now that was also a real highlight seeing that so up close!

The worst part of my role…

sometimes you have to make the difficult decision to disqualify athletes, who have been training for this event for months, if they have a false start or lane infringement for example. When I had to disqualify Bolt for a false start at the 2011 World Championships, it was the talk of the event and people still ask me about it now. However we always have to remember that a sport’s credibility depends on its rules, and they must be applied consistently and fairly for all athletes.

The best part of my role…

is being so up close to the athletes and able to share in all their victories and successes. You could not get any closer to the action than us officials, and we get to see all the results and world records being made first hand before everyone else. I also get to work alongside my partner now! She was tired of coming with me to various events and watching me play my role, so she decided that she was going to train with England Athletics as a Starters’ Assistant, and she has just been chosen to work at her first major event this year which is incredible. There really is such a great level of camaraderie amongst the officiating community so it’s a pleasure to work alongside people I like and respect.

What makes a good official…

the best officials are the ones who are interested in the sport itself. You should be there to help the athlete in their journey to producing their best performance by ensuring that they stick to the correct rules and procedures at events. As an official it is also your duty to perform to your own best whether it is a grassroots or major event.

Remember, without officials there wouldn’t be any results, PBs or medals for anyone from Olympians to those competing at your local town’s athletics events. I would encourage anyone interested in running and athletics to give officiating a try – whether you used to compete, want to make new friends or one of your family members competes and you want to be involved yourself – whatever your inspiration, take your Level 1 course and see where officiating can take you.


Alan’s top tips…

  • If you are interested in finding out more about the Level 1 Officiating course, you can find out more from the England Athletics website or talk to your local Athletics and Running club.
  • After you’ve taken part in the Level 1 course, then quickly identify local opportunities to work as an official. If you’d like any help doing this then contact your local COfSec (County Officials Secretary) and they will be able to set you up at an event. This is invaluable experience and where all the real fun begins as you put what you’ve learnt to the test.
  • Ask questions and learn! We’re all a friendly bunch and we want to widen the officiating community as much as possible as it’s vital to keep the sport going.
  • Buddy up with an experienced official who can act as your mentor in the early stages of your career.
  • Do as much as you can or want to – don’t over commit so the fun element reduces!
  • Keep progressing as much as possible. The Levels are easy to work your way through, and depending upon your achievement, you can work your way up to officiating at high level events such as the Olympics like me!

With this new national campaign, athletics and running fans can now qualify as an event official and learn from the best this year through England Athletics’ classroom and practical experience qualification programme.  Find out how to train with your local England Athletics Club to start races, keep time, judge events and keep things fair. Find out more at www.englandathletics.org/officiating.