How I Became a Time Lord


George responded to a club call to arms and discovered the subtle arts of timekeeping with just wit and a stopwatch.

Well, a time-keeper, in fact.  It started with an email from Ian Hodge.  The Club was desperately short of qualified track and field officials and this was threatening our ability to take part in all sorts of leagues and meetings throughout the Track & Field season.  Would anyone like to volunteer to get qualified?

I respond well to such desperate cris de coeur.  We take it for granted that Track & Field events happen, without realising what enormous volunteer efforts they need behind the scenes.  Starting races, time-keeping, organising the field events, measuring and recording the distances of throws of discusses, javelins and shot – they all have to be done, and unless there is a supply of volunteers to do this, they just can’t happen.

Who could begrudge spending a few summer Saturday afternoons in the agreeable company of fellow Serpies, competing for the club at various suburban and Home-county tracks?

The first decision was what to get qualified as.  I settled on the role of Timekeeper as it seemed straightforward.  Little did I know!

First came the England Athletics course, at the Lee Valley Athletics Centre, with fellow Serpie Ilona Bagie.

The first course lasted about 3 hours.  It’s a charming mix of low-tech systems and digital stopwatches, far removed from the high-tech world of televised international athletics and the Olympics.  But vital all the same, partly because high-techery has an unnerving tendency to fail.

There is an intricate timekeeping system at work throughout the event.  Several timekeepers are needed for each race and sit at the finish, marshalled by a Chief Timekeeper (usually an experienced Level 2 or 3 UKA timekeeper).  Each timekeeper will record the time of one or more of the runners in order of their finish – so each timekeeper records the time of the first, second, third or other runner to cross the line; sometimes all of them.

But – this is where it gets interesting – when does the runner start, and when does he or she finish?

The timekeepers keep a beady eye on the starter, who is supposed to be wearing a red jacket with a yellow sleeve.  The starter blows a whistle to ask the chief timekeeper if the team is ready, and the chief responds by raising a clipboard.  The time starts from the moment the starter fires the gun – so all the timekeepers press their start buttons at this moment, without waiting for the sound of the gun, which can take time to reach them – or be completely inaudible.

But what about finishing?  A runner finishes when any part of his or her torso – not feet or head – crosses the finish line.  So a major aspect of the art of being a timekeeper is to click the stop button at the right moment.  Beginners like me tend to click too soon, so crediting the runner with a marginally faster time than they deserve.  Checking my result with those of more experienced timekeepers was a steep learning curve.

Later, there was a health & safety course to do in Croydon, covering all the field events, which one can get called upon to help with.  “There are injuries and some fatalities every year”, said the instructor helpfully.  Yes, you don’t want to be hit by a javelin, discus or (as in Newham last year) be killed by the collapse of a neglected throw-net cage.

You are required to help as an assistant timekeeper at four events, and to keep a log-book of these events, noting what you did and what you learned, and these details (and a DBS application) have to be sent off to England Athletics, but eventually the day came when my badge came through the post and I was, at last, a Level 1 UK Athletics-registered timekeeper.

That was the easy bit.  As in anything, there is no substitute for experience.  I then took part in several Serpie and other Middlesex T&F events, learning constantly from the more experienced timekeepers from our own and other clubs, all of whom were only too happy to pass on their knowledge.

Often, there is a photo-finish system, apparently making conventional timekeepers unnecessary.  But the system invariably breaks down at some point.

It’s usual for several timekeepers to record the same runner’s finish and get results which differ by several hundredths of a second.  So one of the jobs of the Chief Timekeeper is to make a judgement about what time to declare as the official result.  This calls for a lot of experience and a certain amount of tact.  Eventually, my timings started converging with those of the other more experienced officials, one of whom was a sprightly 92-year old!

It soon became very obvious to me that Ian Hodge was not exaggerating.  Qualified timekeepers are in such short supply that county athletics association officials are desperate to persuade you to attend their events.

I had a scary example of this.  I went to a Middlesex schools event in Uxbridge and there, a desperate teacher asked me whether I could time-keep for the English Schools AA Regional final the following Monday.  There would be (unqualified) school instructors to act as timekeepers, but unless there was a UK Athletics-qualified timekeeper, none of the results could be posted to the Power of 10 website.  So, with barely a dozen events to my name, I found myself being Chief Timekeeper.  Happily, it went well.

So, the rewards of being a qualified timekeeper, or other T&F official, are the satisfactions of learning a new skill, meeting interesting people, helping a wide variety of T&F events take place, and even, earning a point for Serpentine at the T&F event.  As a way of giving back something to a sport that I enjoy greatly, it’s hard to beat.

George Allan spent most of his career as a corporate lawyer in the telecoms industry, turning to local politics in his native Islington later on. Now retired, he is active in building conservation. He took up running after an interval of 50 years and now takes part in Sunday League cross country, club handicaps and the occasional triathlon.