Cumbrian Alan Bell is Britain's leading athletics starter, he has worked at every major championship and is currently setting off athletes at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
It's a pretty simple story,’ Alan admits, when describing the chain of events that led to him becoming a top level athletics official. A good athlete in his own right, Alan had a promising career as a high jumper cruelly cut short by a snapped Achilles tendon in his take-off foot during the 70s. ‘In those days it was a career-ending injury. If it happens now to a Premier League footballer they’re playing again in six weeks, but 40 years ago you were in a position where surgery was good enough to patch you up but never got you back to full health.’ Still a young man, Alan was encouraged by his athletics club secretary to keep an interest in the sport by helping officiate at some of the young athletes’ meetings. ‘I thought I’d give it a go. I travelled to Churchill playing fields in Whitley Bay one Saturday afternoon and he gave me a pair of guns! It doesn’t happen that way these days, believe me, the regulations are very, very tight.’
Alan quickly found he enjoyed being able to maintain an involvement in the sport he loved and, thanks to the growing eminence of athletics clubs like North Shields and Gateshead, the demand for his services grew. ‘One or two people observed that I was improving, I knew what I was doing, I was consistent, I had the control and also the style to manage athletes of a decent quality. I was really lucky; in the 70s Gateshead was the mecca for international athletics. I got a chance to work on major meetings, not necessarily as a starter but I got into the atmosphere of the sport and it just went from there.’
Similar to the route a football referee might take, Alan progressed through the equivalent of Sunday league football, the Northern League, the Conference and the Football League until he reached the Premier League of athletic competition. The ultimate accolade came nine years ago when he was invited onto the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) International Panel – there are only five members in the world. ‘It was just gobsmacking when the letter came. Essentially what it meant was that five of us were appointed to the major meetings to take charge of the start teams around the world. It’s a big responsibility in terms of being a starter, but also in terms of the diplomacy and way you manage the situation.’
An example of the discretion Alan has to demonstrate came at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. ‘You can imagine; technically the Germans were brilliant, as good as any nation in the world at delivering top class athletics, but they had a British starter coming to manage them. The sensitivities needed there, to have a synergy with them as opposed to me just imposing myself, were very important. It was a great experience and of course, culminated in me starting the world record for the 100 metres.’
Alan played a significant role that night in Berlin when Usain Bolt shattered the world 100 metre record, setting off the pistol on the Jamaican’s 9.58 second run. But an event which took place away from the stadium is equally treasured. ‘I’ve never told the media this before,’ Alan reveals. ‘My partner Lesley and I went back to the hotel afterwards and I said, “Let’s have a glass of champagne.” We were joined in the hotel lounge by an elderly American lady and younger American couple. “Have you been in the stadium?” they asked. I was sitting wearing my uniform so it was a pretty banal question, I said “Yeah, of course.” She said, “Did you see the 100 metres?” I couldn’t help myself, I said “Yeah, I saw the first 10 metres of it.” She just laughed at me, and I said “I was the starter!” She turned to the young woman, I think her name was Angela. She said “Angela, this is the man who started the 100 metre world record, tonight in that stadium, and the last time that happened it was your grandfather who won the medal.” It was Jesse Owens’ granddaughter. For a mere Geordie human being like me that was fate. Starting the world record was incredible in itself but then to have that link to history was just phenomenal.’
During the competition, all members of the United States Track & Field team wore badges with ‘JO’ printed on them to commemorate Owens’ victories in the same stadium 73 years earlier, and his family were invited to present the gold medal to the long jump winner. ‘Meeting someone who is a direct link to one of the greatest athletes that’s ever lived, a man who’s gone down in history as a great performer but a man who we all know for his enormous dignity as well; things like that aren’t planned, are they?’
While the German officials in Berlin made Alan’s job easier, the vastly inexperienced team he took charge of at the World Championships in Daegu, Korea, two years later meant he was a lot busier. ‘I’d been told to form a team of Koreans, but that any race under pressure I would have to start.’ Alan set the gun off for every event under 400 metres which amounted to 93 races, including a 100 metre final that will be remembered by Usain Bolt for all the wrong reasons. ‘I actually didn’t get the chance to fire the gun – he went so early’, Alan recalls. Bolt jumped the gun with the world watching and, because of the one-strike false-start penalty the IAAF impose, Alan was forced to disqualify him in front of billions who’d tuned in to watch Bolt attempt to break the world record once again. ‘By the time I’d focused on who’d false started, he’d taken his vest off, he knew he was on his way out. It was probably, in top class athletics, the easiest decision I’ve had to make.’
Alan was left with the difficult task of dealing with the aftermath. Seven athletes remained in the blocks with a chance to win gold, having realistically only had a shot at the silver medal while Bolt was in the race. As they tried to regain their composure, dozens of press photographers invaded the track to capture Bolt’s meltdown. Keeping his cool, Alan switched off all the microphones and calmly spoke to the remaining sprinters. ‘I just said, “Gentlemen, try and relax, we won’t go until I think everybody’s ready.” I wasn’t going to listen to what the television directors were telling me, I had seven guys who needed to get, literally, my best shot. We calmed down, went off and the rest is history.’ Bolt's Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake clocked a 9.92 time to claim the gold.
While Alan is used to being a man that blends into the background before, during and after these huge sporting events, for once he was thrust into the spotlight thanks to silver medalist Walter Dix. When the only questions the world’s media wanted to ask revolved around Bolt, Dix told American network CBS, ‘The starter was great, he did his best for us.’ Alan says, ‘I reflected afterwards, that wasn’t about me, that could have been about anybody. What really was important was that a world class athlete recognised the role the officials played in helping him. Some of them are quite ambivalent about it, but he acknowledged he’d been given a really good opportunity to do the best he possibly could in the race.’
For Alan, the Daegu drama didn’t end there. After what had been a tough day at the office, he made his way to the VIP area, only to be confronted by the last person he hoped to bump into. ‘As I climbed the steps to the VIP area to meet my partner, Lesley, her face was like thunder and I suddenly realised why. She was literally sitting next to Mr and Mrs Bolt, they were in the next seats. Mrs Bolt is a larger than life character – the son is the epitome of the mother. She came towards me and I thought “Just let her let rip, she’s bound to be disappointed.” She just said “He’s a silly boy, but he’ll get over it.”’ Relieved, Alan told Mrs Bolt that he hoped her son would channel his disappointment into the 200 metre final later in the week. ‘She just looked at me and snarled “He’ll be ready.” I thought, bloody hell, he will be!’
Since 2010 the IAAF have enforced the rule which immediately disqualified any athletes who false-start. As the man responsible for enforcing it, is that a penalty Alan agrees with? ‘I’ve got to be really honest and say that the rule was changed entirely to suit television. The world’s broadcast media are on very tight schedules so trying to co-ordinate the 100 metres to go live around the world is a tough job.’ Alan does believe that since its introduction the discipline of the athletes has improved significantly, but for it to work properly requires nerves of steel from the starter. ‘In some places the starters don’t have the courage to hold the athletes, they want rid of the race so that there isn’t an embarrassing situation. It’s been proven that what you need to do is hold them in the set position marginally so that their concentration and focus is at a level that’s right. It’s very easy to go “Set, bang!”, missing the chance for that moment of concentration. I suppose that’s the science and experience that comes from being the person with the gun.’
Having started over 25,000 races in his life, Alan who is now in his 60s, recognises that his career is coming to an end, but he never thought he’d have the chance to be chief starter at an Olympic Games in his own country, an honour he describes as ‘off the scale.’ Alan’s not afraid to admit publicly that the last time Britain hosted the Commonwealth Games, in Manchester 12 years ago, he cried during the closing ceremony. ‘I hadn’t had a drink so I couldn’t blame it on that, I just cried and said to one of my closest friends in athletics, John, who worked with me at London 2012, “We’ve just proved to the world we can do it.”
Incredibly, Alan is not paid a penny for his services as a Chief Starter, the role – like so many others – is entirely voluntary. He has a full time job working as an international co-ordinator for the Youth Sport Trust and is extremely grateful to his benevolent employers for allowing him to combine the job with his athletics commitments. ‘I suppose the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of my career in lots of ways, but the fact is that I got there with support from a lot of people.’ As well as travelling around the globe setting off elite races that feature the likes of Usain Bolt, Alan still keeps a local connection as an official. The month before starting the 100 metre Olympic final at London 2012 he was starting races at the Cumbrian Primary Schools Championships. ‘The grass roots, where I started, is still really important. If I can help the next generation of athletes, but also help the next generation of officials, that’s great because they’re the lifeblood, without the volunteer, sport would die.’
He might not have any money to show for his work as an official, but Alan has a collection of medals that would make Sir Steve Redgrave jealous. ‘We get medals for the events we officiate. They don’t say I won the gold or broke a world record, but they’re mementos that show as a volunteer you can have a great life. There could be young people out there who love athletics and know they’re not going to be any good, but they can get involved as an official and have an ambition to get right to the top. I’m lucky, that’s what happened to me.’