09 Aug 2021

Matters concluded on Friday 6th August in the table tennis at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, gold medals awarded, memories prominent in the mind. The players are at the forefront of our thoughts, they are centre stage, they receive the plaudits; succeed, we witness their colleagues, coaches and supporters jumping for joy in unbridled ecstasy. They go stark, staring bonkers!

by Ian Marshall

However, for another group, those have likewise completed their duties with aplomb and efficiency, there is no such elation.

They are unnoticed, they receive no applause, in a dignified manner they depart the arena, the job well done.

Salute the match officials, a group of people we too often take for granted; salute Werner Thury, the Referee and his team of umpires and referees.

“The best umpires are here, so they are of the highest level; they have achieved excellent standards in the past three years, it is only every four years, so they are under more pressure than at any other tournament. They were here for some 16 days in the venue or in the hotel, it’s not easy, the hotel rooms are small. The task was to convince them always to be motivated, team building was important; that was the main challenge. Before the Olympics we had online meetings, talked about the players, any possible issues.” Werner Thury

Just as the coaches prepared their teams, so did Werner Thury; the attention paid to weeks and months of preparation, focused on detail reaped dividends, it was a most satisfied Referee who departed the Japanese capital city.

“It was a special tournament we will never forget, not the Olympics we had come to expect, different but I am proud of my team, all did an excellent job.” Werner Thury

Tokyo 2020 had its moments of high drama but not when officialdom was concerned, the whole tournament was conducted with an outstanding level of efficiency and professionalism.

Let us not forget that inherently, umpires and referees are volunteers, they are present because of their interest and their desire for the sport to succeed. It is a dedicated group, an homogeneous group, most especially a group of friends. Some made longer journeys than others, none more than Peru’s Diana Santome.

“You are under pressure all the time, the level of play is so high, it’s an important event, you have to be focused. It was different because of the situation; it wasn’t the Olympics we anticipated but it was memorable; we can tell the story from the inside, how an Olympic Games was organised during a pandemic. There were no spectators but once a match starts you forget the things around you; it was special.” Diana Santome

A special event, every possible attention being paid to hygiene; for the players it was an exacting task; it is the same for umpires. They must be focused from start to finish; players may make mistakes, that privilege is not afforded to umpires.

Moreover, all on duty in Tokyo have progressed through the ranks from gaining local, national and international qualifications; the umpires at the Olympic Games being proud owners of the prestigious blue badge.

Pride and that is the key word; just as for a player from a country making a first appearance in an Olympic Games to China’s Ma Long and Chen Meng securing the respective men’s singles and women’s singles titles, so the umpires have a great sense of pride but in a different manner.

It was a fact exemplified by Malaysia’s Elaine Lim who was accustomed to wearing a mask, she is a qualified dentist.

In fact could we not form a table tennis team of dentists? Panagiotis Gionis of Greece is a qualified dentist, as is Jhallim Medina from Honduras and Wang De-Ying from El Salvador.

“Dentistry and table tennis are my passions. It was a very special and critical moment for all, we were not sure what would happen; the Japanese government required we had a PCR test every day and also when we arrived at the airport; so that was very different. Usually I travel a lot but because of Covid-19, the last time I travelled was in 2019, so that has always beem very different for me.” Elaine Lim

They are proud to have officiated in the world’s greatest sporting gathering. The opportunity is afforded to the very few, it may only come once in a lifetime.

Only 25 umpires were present in the Metropolitan Gymnasium for an event that despite all the restrictions was very special; a fact Denmark’s Mark Beckham, a social worker, underlined.

“My first Olympic Games; when we had the singles matches at the start of the tournament I was very busy; I think I’ve umpired about 10 to 15 matches. The bronze medal match between Dima Ovtcharov and Lin Yun-Ju was the best at which I umpired; I think the men’s singles semi-finals were the best matches I have ever seen. You can really feel that the players raise their level, everything moves a step up.” Mark Beckham

All are proud to tell their families and friends they umpired at the Olympic Games, they are even more proud if selected to officiate in a medal match.

It is the top step of the podium, the gold medal, the supreme accolade.

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