They work endless hours performing a variety of tasks such as measuring jumps and throws, raking sand pits and starting races, while often toiling under rainy skies or a blazing sun. At times the most they receive is a sincere thank you for their time and extraordinary efforts in contributing to the sport they love by traveling long distances to work events on their own dime -- and they’re an indispensable group to have on hand if you want to host a track meet.
A USATF Certified Official since 2001, Tiffany Banks’s love affair with track and field began at age six when her mother suggested she take up the sport for something to do. Banks’s passion and hard work eventually carried her to Northwestern State University in Louisiana where she competed in the heptathlon, which led to her first experience as an official.
“We hosted the Southland Conference Championship in 1996 and they brought me in to help officiate the combined-events athletes and the women’s high jump,” said Banks, who resides in Frisco, Texas. “From there I took a little break and then kinda got back into it in 2001, when I was helping coach in San Antonio (Texas) when I was living there at the time. As a coach, you helped officiate because it was all hands on deck in order to get the events run off, especially with the background knowledge of the different events I had. You want to see them run properly so the athletes can get the most out of their participation, and it just kind of kept going from there.”
Her specialties as an official are in the high jump, long jump, starter and start crew coordinator, who sets assignments for starters at a meet and serves as the liaison between the start crew, timing and meet management. Starters and all officials take on a tremendous responsibility at each and every event they work, and in many instances the pressure they face is self-imposed.
“Overall, I speak for all officials when I say that our ultimate goal is to help every athlete out there have their best performance possible, so the conditions have to be fair and they have to be right for them to perform at their best,” said Banks, who owns two graduate degrees and works as a high school physical education teacher.
Although the hours are long and the work can sometimes be challenging for USATF Certified Officials -- who all adhere to a strict code of conduct -- there are numerous incidents where an official’s close involvement with the sport results in a rewarding encounter.
“I once had a conversation with one of our elite hurdlers in a van from the airport to our respective hotels, and she wanted to know if officials get nervous or get the jitters,” Banks said. “I explained to her that it’s the same thing for us because we want them to do so well. Just like they get into a zone, we get into a zone right before the competition to make sure that our “t’s” are crossed and our “i’s” are dotted, and we’re alert. We’re watching for everything we watch for to make sure they have the best possible performance.
“I saw her later at that meet as she was getting ready for her race. We had talked about when people are not understanding about athletes being in the zone and everybody wanting to talk to them right before the race, and for the athletes it’s like ‘No, we’re kind of in a zone and need to focus on the race.’ So I told her that I don’t really interact with athletes close to the start line…that they’re truly focused on the task at hand. I saw her later at that meet and she just kind of looked over and kind of smiled and nodded, which was cool.”
Of note: The athlete Banks connected with at that meet was Dawn Harper-Nelson, the 2008 Olympic Games gold medalist and 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 100m hurdles.
It takes many qualified officials to run a track meet efficiently, and at times finding the necessary number of officials can be a challenge. In order to alleviate that predicament, the recruitment of young track and field enthusiasts into the ranks of USATF Certified Officials is a continuous endeavor.
“I think that a concerted effort is being made to bring on younger officials, or starting them younger, so they gain the knowledge they need,” Banks said. “I think we have a wealth of knowledge on the track right now that we’re in danger of losing. I know I was blessed with tremendous mentors along the way, and we should make sure that as we have the opportunity to bring on younger officials we need to do that. We also have to recognize that the dynamic is very different than it used to be, and unfortunately finances do play a role.
“When I first came into it, what I noticed is you have individuals who either taught or were self-employed, or they were retired because those schedules tended to lend themselves to track officiating. The younger individuals we want to grab now as they finish their college careers, if they have an interest. It’s difficult when you’re just starting out to be able to afford to work the meets. That is, unfortunately, a reality that our sport faces. It’s not a revenue sport. However, we do have to look at the fact that in order to get officials and hopefully keep quality officials, it’s something that we will need to address.”
For Banks and the compatriots with whom she works, the countless personal rewards they receive as USATF Certified Officials are well worth whatever sacrifices they endure to be close to the sport about which they are so passionate. The opportunity to proudly serve countless athletes as they pursue their dreams is reward enough for all the men and women who are the unsung heroes of track and field.
“Watching athletes succeed and knowing that they had their best race or their best performance is special. Whether it’s one that qualifies them for something else, which at the elite level that’s the ultimate goal, or with the younger ages they’ve had a great opportunity and set a personal best and they succeeded in accomplishing a goal that they set out, or whether it’s on the track or in the field in jumping their highest or farthest -- when you look at the face of an athlete when they’ve accomplished something that they set out to do, either for that meet or it’s their life’s desire to accomplish it, it speaks volumes. (It’s great) to be a part of that.”
-- Contributed by Tom Surber
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