Wherever a sporting fixture is played, be it a Sunday league game on the local field or a Paralympic final, each and every competition needs an impartial judge. The people who make these decisions are balancing sporting success on a knife-edge. Defined by a split second judgement, their decisions can make the difference between success and failure.
Scott Henry hails from Cumbria and was selected to referee 7-a-side football at the Paralympic Games. The 26-year-old has worked alongside disabled children the majority of his life, and was excited to get the opportunity to referee at the Paralympics. “I was ecstatic, I was beaming,” he confessed.
During the football season, Henry referees semi-professional matches, alongside his work assisting players with cerebral palsy. He took charge of the Brazil versus Ireland match at the BT Paralympic World Cup in May, earning himself a call up to the Paralympics proper.
Henry never expected to get to this level. “When I first started out I didn’t expect too much from refereeing to be honest,” he explained, “to be selected, to be part of an elite international competition... words can’t describe it.”
And an elite international competition it is. The athletes and teams involved are the best in the world of disabled sport, making the job at hand even tougher for the man in black.
Swearing and back-chat are commonplace in cerebral palsy football, and no complacency is shown by the referees. “It’s just like refereeing any other game. I don’t see them as different to any other footballers, whatever their background or disability,” Scott Henry said.
The referees were chosen after a 10-month selection process. Some of the British referees, such as Henry, have experience in working with children and adults with disabilities. The British referees prepared by officiating in the FA National Cerebral Palsy Football League, giving them a taste for the sport.
Niels Haupt is a German referee from Hanover who officiated the 5-a-side Paralympic football competition, which is played by blind footballers. Haupt believes that this makes the job more difficult because the players cannot see the signals and hand movements a referee would use in a standard game of football.
“Mimics and gestures cannot be used to explain your decision. You can only do that by voice. Therefore, I learned to think about what I should say at the right time,” said Haupt. However, this can prove to be quite difficult.
“Sometimes players have the impression that I spoke to them in an unfriendly way even though I did not want to do that.”
The one thing which can assist the 5-a-side referees in the stadium is the fact that the crowd must be completely quiet whilst the ball is in play, so the players can hear the ball bearings inside. This can ensure the referees have a clear line of communication to the players, arguably clearer than in a 7-a-side or 11-a-side match.
When Haupt heard the news he had been selected to referee at the Games, he was immediately bombarded with praise and good wishes from family and friends. “There was an article about me going to London in the newspaper and I was on the first page. I guess I had this paper posted 50 times through my letter box.”
Another British official is Perry Gascoine, who has also been refereeing the 5-a-side tournament. The official from Hertfordshire had the unique situation of staying in the same block as Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt did a month ago.
Gascoine has over 20 years of refereeing experience and admits it is more difficult to referee a blind football match. “If anything, it takes more concentration to referee a blind match,” Gascoine said. “You’ve got to be aware of your own movement, but also the players’ movement, bearing in mind that they obviously can’t see you.”
Understandably the referees cannot officiate a match in which their own country is involved. This leaves Gascoine with a dilemma; if ParalympicsGB does well, it will limit the opportunities for British referees. “It’s just like any tournament. As a supporter I want GB to progress as far as they can, but as a referee – if GB leaves the competition early – there’s a chance for me to progress,” Gascoine said about the situation at Games time.
Although there is huge pressure, the referees are all honoured to be part of one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world. The Paralympics has provided one of the biggest possible stages for referees to showcase their talent.
“The Paralympics is the second largest sporting event in the world,” said Gascoine. “Just like the Olympics, the nation will be talking about it, and I’m proud to have played a part in it.”