News & Updates

2 June 2021 • General

Tokyo 2020 Countdown: the Kiwi officials at the heart of the action

We kick-start our Tokyo 2020 Countdown series by speaking to a pair of New Zealand officials with very important roles at both the forthcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games. Steve Landells chats to Ruth Liong and Trevor Spittle to find out more.

Ruth Liong

As one of three technical delegates overseeing the smooth running of the athletics programme at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Kiwi Ruth Liong has a position of high responsibility in the Japanese capital.

Yet the Christchurch native sometimes has to pinch herself when reflecting on her journey into officialdom, which started out with humble beginnings at St Andrew’s College children’s athletics club some 20 years ago.

Back then her 12-year-old daughter, who had shown sprinting promise, had joined the school athletics club but with mum “bored” hanging around the track, she used her initiative and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

That day she was handed a rake to smooth the sand in the long jump pit, and so began her path that today has led her to Tokyo and the top table at the Paralympic Games.

So, can she quite comprehend her athletics adventure? “If you’d asked me 20 years ago if I would be officiating at the Tokyo Paralympics I would have laughed and said it was just a pipe dream.

“It’s been a path full of experiences both locally and internationally, but none of it would have been achieved without the supportive encouragement of my husband and family.”

Following that initial taste of officialdom, she quickly became immersed in that world – enthusiastically taking courses and gaining officials gradings.

She developed from a local to a regional level official and was later appointed to officiate at the national championships.

“Officiating was something I could do for myself,” she explains. “I met some wonderful people and quickly developed some lasting friendships with others who also loved officiating, I enjoyed the environment and looked forward to every Saturday.”

Then in 2009 she was presented an unexpected opportunity when the late Leon Blanchet, the then chair of the National Officials Committee, asked Ruth if she would like to attend an officials course in Darwin.

Despite knowing few details, she agreed to fly to Australia and on arrival discovered she was completing a course to become a National Technical Official for Para athletics. She successfully passed this course and officiated at the Arafura Games. In 2010 she was invited to Australia for the TOECS 2 course, and after passing was appointed as an International Technical Official Area for Oceania – a position she still holds today.

“I was like a sponge,” she says. “I love learning more about the sport and adding to my knowledge.”

In 2011 she worked as a chief judge for horizontal jumps, mainly on the visually impaired events at the World Para Athletics Championships (formerly the IPC Championships) held at QE II Stadium in her home city of Christchurch.

Meanwhile, she took the next step in her officiating career four years later when she was invited to attend a Level 4 World Para Athletics course in Italy. After passing the course she was appointed to the panel of International Technical Official’s (ITO).

Subsequently officiating as an ITO in Italy and Dubai, Ruth was appointed as an ITO to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, serving as referee for the secured throws – club, shot, javelin and discus.

“It was such an honour to be selected” she says of her memories of Rio. “The experience was fantastic. I had a great time and learned so much about what is involved in large major international competitions.”

In 2017 at the World Para Athletics (WPA) Championships in London, she was appointed as track referee (ITO) and two years later as a technical delegate at the next edition of the WPA in Dubai – experiences which have enabled Ruth to further broaden her knowledge base.

So, does she have a special bond with Para athletics?

“I really enjoy working for WPA,” she says. “They are fully supportive of Para athletes and provide them a platform to excel in their events. I am full of admiration for Para athletes, the obstacles they have to overcome, and their performances are just phenomenal.

“Para athletics is an exciting facet of sport, which leads to interesting officiating challenges.”

After being one of the technical delegates for the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru she was appointed as one of three technical delegates for the Tokyo Paralympics.

For the past two years, she has been working 20-30 hours a week where she and her fellow technical delegates oversee everything from pre-event scheduling, programme, marathon, warm up track, medical, media, event presentation, while developing and refining protocols.

Then, during the Games, Ruth and her fellow Technical Delegates will work as the “Eyes in the Sky” to oversee the smooth operation of the competition.

“You are dealing with athletes (at a Paralympic Games) who have trained all their life to be the very best that they can on a given day,” she explains.

“They are under enormous pressure to perform and sometimes behave in a way they wouldn’t normally. You may also have to be able to cope with an equipment issue or failure. In both situations you need to be able to make decisions quickly and deal with it in a calm and collected manner to resolve the issue.

“You need to stay alert, focused and aware of what is happening. During major competitions it is really important you rest as they are long days.”

The global pandemic has complicated preparations for Tokyo and several planned site visits have not been possible.

Yet despite the additional complications, Ruth can’t wait to be in attendance in Tokyo.

“I enjoy the atmosphere of officiating at a big event and meeting up with colleagues from around the world,” she explains. “To watch athletes develop into more mature athletes is a real treat and as an official you have the best seat in the house. You couldn’t be any closer to the action!”

For the Cantabrian, her experiences as an official has enriched her life in so many ways and she would encourage anyone else to give it a go.

“Athletics is not like other sports, it is multi-faceted,” she explains. “In athletics, you have horizontal jumps, vertical jumps, throws, the track, so many different events with different rules. There is something for everybody. You can achieve as little or as much as you want… that is the wonderful thing about officiating.”

Trevor Spittle

When Trevor Spittle answered the call for volunteers at the QE II Stadium in Christchurch more than 35 years ago, little did the Cantabrian realise where the journey would take him.

An International Technical Official for the past 15 years, Trevor has enjoyed working on a range of big international events including the World Athletics Championships, Commonwealth Games and World Para Athletics Championships.

And next month in Tokyo, he will broaden his international athletics experiences as he works on both the Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in an officiating capacity.

“My kids were a part of Papanui Redwood (now Papanui Toc H club) and I don’t know if you have ever been to QE II Stadium, but it could be cold in that stand,” explains Trevor, of how his volunteering journey in athletics began. “So, when the call came for volunteers I was happy to help and that day I worked as timekeeper.

“Within two years I was meeting manager but that is typical me, if I’m going to do something I dive deep into it.”

With a natural confidence, the accountant quickly rose through the officialdom ranks. He served as President of both the Canterbury Children’s Athletics and the NZ Children’s Athletics Association.

Yet the direction of his athletics journey was to take an significant step in 2000 after he was invited to attend the Sydney Olympics.

There he worked as part of the throws team and was “blown away” by the experience.

“I’ll never forget Cathy Freeman (the Australian athlete who won the women’s 400m) running the final,” he recalls. “The noise in the stadium was so loud that we had to stop the discus competition. Many of the competing discus throwers were sat with their hands over their ears – and my ears were ringing for the next 24 hours.”

In 2005, Trevor completed his qualifications as an Area Technical Official and the following year he became a fully qualified International Technical Official – which gave him the option, if invited, to attend leading global athletics events.

Over the past decade-and-a-half, Trevor has featured as an ITO at three Commonwealth Games, five World Athletics Championships, a Paralympic Games, World Indoor Championships and five World Para Athletics Championships.

As an ITO he has served in a range of slightly different roles, including event referee and video referee. So, what do those roles entail?

“As an event referee your role is to make sure the chief official is doing his job properly, and that the competition is run correctly and within the rules,” he explains. “My job is to look into any protests that may occur. I’ll be in the field of play and if necessary, I can overrule any decision I see as incorrect among the officials.

“I’ll be in communication with the competition director, who I see as like the conductor of the orchestra. I guess in my role, I’d be the lead violinist leading the rest of the orchestra.”

The role can create a multitude of challenges, from athletes wanting to continue warmups after the circle has been closed before a competition, to athletes grabbing favoured throwing implements and hiding them to hold for themselves.

While working as a track referee at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, he also had to disqualify English sprinter Zharnel Hughes from the gold medal for obstruction in the 200m final.

“It was an unpleasant task but as track referee, one you must face up to and its aftermath,” adds Trevor, a former Athletics NZ Board member for nine years.

Trevor will work as an ITO at both the forthcoming Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, and although he does not yet specifically know the role he will be undertaking, he is relishing the prospect of his Japanese adventure

“I’m just really looking forward to the competition,” he explains. “I’ve always enjoyed being a part of an event and seeing the enjoyment the athletes get out of the competition.

“I’m keen to see how the athletes perform, especially the New Zealand athletes, and I’m just looking forward to being a part of it.

It is a journey that Trevor – who is also currently Vice President of Oceania Athletics and a member of the World Athletics Competition Commission – has not regretted, and he would encourage others to also try their hand at officialdom.

“There is nothing better than being out there contributing and being able to see the athletes competing on a level playing field, competing within the rules and with good sportsmanship,” he adds.