By Jim Jimison¹ and Chris Hunter²
The origins of officiating, during the very early days of the sport, were examples of individuals stepping forth as volunteers in an attempt to add some degree of regulation, in the absence of formal rules. Those were the days of mainly self-regulation in which triathletes were expect to adhere to a simple set of rules, usually generated by the race director. Most of these regulations were a variation of what was in use by the Hawaii Ironman and, later, by the USTS races. This self-regulation worked for the early, small races in which most competitors were from the same geographical area and knew each other on a personal level. Thus, peer pressure was a major factor in determining athlete behavior. But, as the number of races multiplied and the participation grew, the inevitable arguments and confrontations grew.
The creation of a governing body, initially USTA, and finally the Triathlon-Federation/USA (Tri-Fed/USA), allowed members of the sport to address the issues of rules and rules enforcement. First and foremost, the sport needed a set of rules which would bring continuity to the existing hodgepodge of regulation, no regulation, etc.
This task fell to Al James, an experienced official in a variety of sports, and Verne Scott, Executive Director, Tri-Fed/USA. They realized that, not only did the sport need an atmosphere of fair-play and safety, but that the very existence of Tri-Fed/USA depended on being validated by responsible authority, symbolized by Rules and Safety. Both undertook this task with vigor, even though there were disagreements and agreements to disagree.
The first set of comprehensive rules authored by Al James saw the light of day in 1985. James also produced a companion volume titled "A Triathlon Official's Guide".
Having published rules did not result in immediate acceptance and appreciation by a significant number of triathletes. The sport, by its very nature, is attractive to those individuals who can deal with the hard work and isolation that is required to be successful. It is fair to say that many of the early participants had existential tendencies, if not anarchistic tendencies. Nevertheless, there was a universal desire for fair and safe rules.
In 1985, R.E. “Jim” Jimison, an age-group triathlete, met with Al James at the USTS race in Hilton Head, SC. Both men had officiating experience in other sports, and both were of one mind on the subject of triathlon regulation and the rapidly developing need for officials. They corresponded frequently over the next year, comparing notes on possible methods of enforcement and, in 1987, Verne Scott asked Jimison if he would serve as the head referee for a very special event. The Bermuda World Championship, a $100,000 purse race, was the first major, invitation only, triathlon outside of the Hawaii Ironman. It was televised by NBC Sports. The New York Times, London Times, Frankfort Press, as well as other major media, were all covering the event. Every major professional triathlete in the world was scheduled to compete. The race had requested sanctioning from Tri-Fed/USA with a Tri-Fed/USA head referee. Several of the top ten men and a few of the women were disqualified for drafting. Although the promoter was quite upset, the race director stated, "We Bermudians are very British and, as such, we have a keen sense of fair play. Justice was served.” They re-sanctioned the following year and requested the same official. Verne Scott commented, "We have made a major step in establishing Tri-Fed as the authority in triathlon". He subsequently asked Jimison to officiate the first Short-Course Championship in Hollywood, Florida the following weekend.
At this point, there was agreement that a formal Official's Program needed to be developed. With a request from Verne Scott, and agreement by Jon Noll, President of Tri-Fed/USA, Jimison became the first Commissioner of Officials. He proceeded to write a training manual and recruited the people to serve in the program. Jimison asked Chris Hunter to serve as his deputy and they recruited Steve Main and Eric Spanogle to join what would be known as the Board of Officials. This group was then tasked with recruiting and training Regional Coordinators who would conduct the clinics and supervision of the officiating personnel. As the Commissioner of Officials, Jimison conducted the first training clinic in Waco, Texas. This group of men and women became the Regional Coordinators structure. The first coordinators were, Chris Hunter, Deputy Commissioner, Eric Spanogle, Steve Main, Ron Adams, John Simmons, Don Hodgens, Ralph Cole, Carole Koehler, Tom Freeman, and Jose Valdes. From this group, a Board of Officials was selected in order to divide the organizational duties into a regional system. These individuals, who were dedicated, tough-minded triathletes, took the task to heart. They were very mindful of the fact that, although they were volunteers, they would be judged by the quality of their work and discipline could be expected if standards were not met. It is an unusual group of volunteers who accept stringent review as part of their duty. They applied these same standards to the referees they recruited and trained. It is fair to say that these men and women went on to distinguish themselves as both referees and as developers of triathlon. The early series of clinics was in a constant state of evolution as feedback from the field was used to update the curriculum and it's reflection of what a new referee was about to encounter.
Nevertheless, several officials were written letters of reprimand, put on probation, or even dismissed from the Program. There was a zero tolerance policy for inadequate enforcement and especially for enforcement that was judged to be needlessly aggressive. This attitude was reinforced by Verne Scott’s statement, "Referees are the only visible example of Tri-Fed and must perform well". And "perform well" they did. Reports from race directors began to trickle in, praising the value and good work of the referees. Additionally, as it is with any group faced with a difficult task, a high level of camaraderie developed within the organization, reaching a membership of 156 officials by the mid-nineties.
One of the very notable training clinics was held in Waco, Texas. Organized by Dave Rainey, the first clinic-certified referee, the members of that clinic became major players in various parts of the country, not just in officiating but in race organization and promotion. Five of the participants went on to found the Mid-Southwest Region of Tri-Fed/USA. They had a Texas Ranger mentality, and were proud of it. The nature of officiating, until 1990, was quite different than it later became. Jon Noll and the Tri-Fed Board of Directors empowered the Head Referee with the authority to "pull the sanction" on races which did not provide the safety aspects in the sanctioning application, thus removing the race’s insurance coverage. Some of the new race directors were frequently guilty of the "balloons and banners" approach, at the expense of necessities like medical care and aid stations. The referee was directed to disallow the sanction if after arriving onsite, serious infractions were discovered. In almost all cases, the race director saw the error of his or her ways and complied with the requests. It was standard procedure for the Commissioner to wait by the telephone before a major race, ready to consult with a referee who had encountered a particularly difficult race organization.
The insurance program developed by Paul Porter, was a turning point in leveraging Tri- Fed's ability to demand a safe and fair event. According to Porter, referees are risk assessment experts in the sport of triathlon. At that time, it was a very necessary task. But, this responsibility was not for the faint-of-heart. Confronting an errant race director and demanding certain changes be made or the race will be cancelled, via the insurance aspect, was heart attack time for anyone but the most dedicated referee, who was usually a well-conditioned triathlete. The other, most frequent problem was motorcycles for draft control. The race director would promise ten or twelve motorcycles and volunteer draft marshals when submitting the sanction application, and then only two or three would show up, reducing the quality of draft-control. Resourceful referees would then have to use pick-up trucks, bicycles, or whatever else might be available for draft control. At one race, a visiting British cycle team volunteered to marshal. Then, after the race was complete, the referee was confronted by adrenaline-soaked athletes who felt they had been wrongly penalized. But, once the accuracy of the calls was validated, there was no mercy. These were some very long days. Thus, the Texas Ranger analogy.
Much of the training contained in the clinics was straight forward rules application and interpretation, marshal staging, and the like. There were, however, some special topics which have proven to be valuable. One of these was a technique for analyzing a race organization. If a race director delegated authority to each of the segment captains, then it was called a "Stratified System". This was the ideal configuration. The referee could evaluate each component of the race, suggest changes, and be confident that he or she was dealing with someone who had intimate knowledge of that section. However, if the race director retained control over all race functions, no matter how minor, this was termed a "Non- Stratified System". In this case, the panic and impatience which occurred within this scenario usually resulted in most of the referee’s suggestions being met with the "I don't have time for that" response from the race director. The referee may as well find the nearest bar, have a beer, and wait for the gun to go off. Also, part of the special training was the system of de-briefing marshals. As mentioned above, marshaling was an on-going problem. The volunteer marshal was an unknown entity upon which the results depended. We didn't know if the individual marshal harbored super-aggressive tendencies or they were so passive that the race meant just a bike ride and a tee shirt for them. To counter the possibility of excessive aggression and to err on the side of the athlete, we used a five point scale for de-briefing the draft marshals. If a marshal submitted a penalty report, he or she was asked to describe the athlete's bike, bike helmet, and location on the course, etc., as they were instructed in their pre-race meeting.
Then, they were asked, "On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your call? One being absolute certainty, and five being I'm not sure." If they answered between two and five, they were thanked for their time and dismissed. Their report was then discarded. Only the "One" on the scale response found its way into the final results. This system is the best example of the referee’s determination to apply the rules but too aware of the consequences of that judgment.
The rule book written by Al James and Verne Scott was a living document. As referees reported their experiences, some significant issues arose which required modification of the rules. These reports and recommendations were forwarded to Verne Scott, who reviewed the situation and consulted with Jon Noll and the Board of Directors. In almost all cases, this chain of information resulted in changes and modification of the rules. In a couple cases, the referees humorously nicknamed the rule in honor of the individual whose actions prompted the change. I believe that tradition has been discouraged. There was such a degree of growth within the Officials Program that a method of classifying officials based on experience and competence was required. The decision was made to implement the Category system, ranging from Cat 1 to Cat 5. The Cat 1 referee was the best we had to offer. These individuals exemplified our ideal referee. They had the training, the experience, and were tempered by fire in the most difficult races available. The categories tapered down to the Cat 5 referee, who was a new clinic participant. The Category designations each had its own level of experience and training. By the time someone climbs the ladder to Cat 1, he or she has experienced just about every situation imaginable. Cat 1 referees actually anticipate the unusual with a certain degree of glee. Examples of this include the time a race committee sent a private airplane to pick up the referee, or on the day before the race, when the race committee gathered for a meeting with the referee and the chairman opened by saying, "We've never put on a race before, but Bill, here, has actually competed in one. We're sure glad you're here". Oh-boy.
The Program, with the strong support of the Executive Director and the Board of Directors, continued to grow and refine it's techniques of regulation. A great misfortune occurred when Verne Scott decided to resign his position. Mr. Scott, along with Jon Noll were the architects of what had become the worldwide model for the developing sport and were the main supporters for a fair and safe competition.
In 1988, Jim Freim assumed the Executive Director’s position. During Mr. Freim’s tenure, Jim Curl of USTS applied for sanctioning with Tri-Fed/USA and Valerie Silk, of Ironman fame, sanctioned the Hawaii Ironman in 1988, also requesting that the Tri-Fed Commissioner serve as a supervisor for the purpose of certifying Ironman's referees. Much of Freim’s time was occupied with an ill-fated drive to establish USA authority in the developing ITU movement. He was also a strong supporter of a fair and safe race environment and a friend of the Officials program.
Now begins what this author calls "the dark period" of officiating. Mark Sisson replaced Freim as Executive Director. Sisson harbored an entirely different perspective regarding officiating. He is the admitted author of ITU's draft-legal racing and, although we all admire the fact that we are an Olympic sport and greatly value the money it generates, most believe that this style of triathlon is not what we intended to be the USA sport. Sisson’s drive to denigrate the sport had serious consequences to the Officials Program. He and Markham Leventhal, chairman of the Tri-Fed/USA Legal Committee, extensively altered the rule book without input, eliminating much of the valuable work of James and Scott.
The Appeals section was particularly anti-official and resulted in the referees not getting a fair voice in disputes. Sisson hired an employee, Sean Phelps, to be Officials Coordinator, in an attempt to take program control away from the Board of Officials. Also, the all-important sanction-control was removed, further eliminating the referee's ability to guarantee that the sanction application was true reflection of the actual race condition. Jimison, recently elected to the Tri Fed Board of Directors and still the Commissioner of Officials, assisted by Chris Hunter, the Deputy Commissioner spent countless hours trying to salvage the Program. While they did not deny Sisson's right to a different opinion, they found it impossible to accept actions which Sisson admitted were designed to aid the elite triathletes and, ultimately, make our rules more acceptable to ITU and TOC. This argument's validity as it relates to Tri-Fed was a mystery to everyone except those who soon joined ITU. This confusion only lasted two years but its effect on officiating within the USA was significant. The anger toward Sisson resulted in his being denied a nomination as Secretary General of ITU. In order to be nominated, he had to have the approval of the Tri-Fed Board of Directors. This was not forthcoming.
One of the few positive events that occurred in the two years was the request from Triathlon Canada that, they be allowed to "borrow" Tri-Fed's Commissioner for three clinics. Tri-Fed agreed and the clinics on "Race Management and Officiating" were conducted in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto. After exiting a Cowboy bar in Winnipeg and seeing a vivid display of the northern lights, Jimison noted that he was "definitely not in South Carolina".
After Sisson's departure, Steve Locke was hired as Executive Director. Mr. Locke evaluated the Officials Program budget and decided it had expanded beyond reason. The Officials Coordinator's position was eliminated and Jimison was asked to resume the Commissioner's position.
The Program's control was now back in the hands of the Board of Officials. They inherited a Program which was quite different in its position of authority to force adherence to the letter of the sanctioning contract. But, they took to the aspects of on-course enforcement as their main reason for being. And today, in the era of overloaded courses, the referees continue to strive in the image of the original concept of a fair and safe competition.
Jimison was again elected to the Board of Directors. He retired from the Officials’ Program and the seasoned and very capable Deputy Commissioner, Chris Hunter, assumed the role as Commissioner of Officials and remained in that position until 1998. Under the direction of Hunter and, subsequently, Charlie Crawford, the Officials Program continues to be the standard after which all other programs are patterned.
--1. Jim Jimison: Has participated in more than one hundred triathlons including the Hawaii Ironman. Developed the Officials Program and served as Commissioner for nine years. Twice elected to the Tri-Fed/USA Board of Directors. Member of the Blue Ribbon Triathlon Committee in 1989. At the request of Triathlon Canada, conducted the initial training of race directors and referees in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Toronto. Served as Technical Director of Team USA at the first World Championship at Avignon, France. Received the USAT Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Current member of the USAT History Task Force. 2. Chris Hunter: Has participated in more than one hundred triathlons beginning in 1984. Has been a triathlon official from 1986 to present. Has served as Regional Coordinator of Officials for the Midwest Region, Deputy Commissioner of Officials and has served as Chairman of the Board of Officials and later as Commissioner of Officials. Helped to develop the Officials’ Clinic program and has served as an Officials’ Clinic trainer. Has been a member of the Tri-Fed/USA and USAT Safety and Rules, Legal and History Project Committees. Has also served as an ITU Referee in several ITU sanctioned races.