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U is for umpires (referees and other officials)
Who is the most distinguished person ever to have umpired a game in the history of Oxford? Who among Oxford students and alumni is a world-class umpire (or referee)? Answers would be welcome from any quarter, for both female and male match officials.
The first varsity chess match took place at a neutral venue in London with a big crowd, many of whom had not grasped how poor the quality of the chess would be
One possible answer to the first of those questions would be the umpire at the first Oxford v Cambridge varsity match in chess, in 1873, who was the world champion, William Steinitz. Some cynics point out that he had only styled himself the world champion at this stage but he did eventually persuade others to compete against him for the title and beat them, so that he is recognised as the first undisputed world champion of his game.
The first varsity chess match took place at a neutral venue in London with a big crowd, many of whom had not grasped how poor the quality of the chess would be or how difficult it would be to see ‘the action’. Still, it was an occasion and an umpire was needed. It started at 6pm and had to stop at 11pm. Each member of the teams was to play two games.
Steinitz had to adjudicate on who would have won the two games that were still being played at 11pm. He published his reasons and thus set an umpiring precedent which has rarely been followed in other sports. He had no connection to Oxford or Cambridge but concluded that Oxford would have won both games and Oxford won the overall contest. Two future Bodley Librarians were in the Oxford team, as well as Walter Parratt who became Professor of Music at Oxford, Master of the Queen’s Music and Master of the King’s Music, known for being able to play simultaneously a Bach fugue on the organ and a couple of games of blindfold chess. Steinitz’s adjudication included deciding in favour of Parrratt. His reasoning was published in The Field magazine: ‘I thought it undesirable, in what I believe to be a novel way of concluding a chess match, to establish the precedent of an umpire giving his decisions absolutely, without being prepared to submit his opinions to the critical eye of the public.’ Bravo!
By which I mean, bravo to Steinitz for explaining his reasoning. I am not advocating that umpires in, say, cricket decide who would have won when stumps have to be drawn on the last day of a match.
The first question above was carefully phrased to refer to a ‘game’. There are those who think that chess is not a sport, which is one of the many reasons why it is difficult to answer the basic V for Varsity question of how many varsity games there have ever been.
Turning to the second question, Joy Tottman is a recent New College graduate in Politics, Philosophy & Economics and an Olympic referee in ice hockey, officiating in Vancouver in 2010. She was awarded a full Blue for ice hockey as a player and now works as the compliance officer for the Sport & Recreation Alliance, for whom she wrote recently about refereeing in a man’s world: ‘as an on-ice official in the macho world of the men’s ice-hockey English Premier League I feel relatively well-qualified to comment’ on the sexist discussion of football’s assistant referee Sian Massey by Andy Gray and Richard Keys, then of Sky Sports. ‘I have spent years walking onto ice rinks and watching people stop their conversations to shake their head in disgust or disbelief that a female is refereeing their game.’ Joy Tottman’s pioneering work has encouraged others to serve sport similarly: ‘Signs of this progress came last Sunday night at a men’s English Premier League ice hockey match at Bracknell where the three-member officiating team included two women... We have a number of women ice hockey officials across the country and the change in perception of their right to officiate has taken time but has altered.’
If you are not familiar with the names Steinitz or Tottman, who would count as a famous umpire or referee? In this web world, there are endless lists of famous people. In guides to universities, originally in book or newspaper form, there are also usually some famous alumni mentioned to tempt prospective students into applying to that college. Putting the two together, would you expect to find an umpire or a referee named ahead of other heroes?
As an example, those contemplating attending Hertford College who go to one of the websites that offer advice on higher education will find the names of two famous alumni, Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels, fair enough) and David Elleray, not in that order. Another one of those websites has a wider group of Hertford old members – Ellary and Swift, yes, of course, but also Thomas Hobbes (philosopher), Sir Peter Pears (singer), William Tyndale (who reformed the Church), Evelyn Waugh (writer), Clement Jackson (who has already been mentioned in despatches in this Z to A and to whom we shall return shortly) and Fiona Bruce and Natasha Kaplinsky (news readers).
David Elleray is not in that company because he is a teacher, although he has served with distinction at Harrow. David Elleray trumps Thomas Hobbes and co, at least in the judgment of one guide to university choices, because he was a football referee. He refereed local league football while he was a student at Hertford and also played rugby for Hertford and coxed a Hertford eight. He has refereed all major English matches and was selected for the World Cup but put his school duties first, rather than take a month away.
The cup awarded to the winners of the annual varsity athletics is named after Clement Jackson who was an Oxford Blue, probably the fastest hurdler in the world in the 1860s, one of the founders of the Amateur Athletic Association and a volunteer administrator of extraordinary dedication, if not of unimpeachable fair-mindedness where Cambridge were concerned. The Oxford University Athletics Club website explains that, ‘In 1869, following his election as a Don of Hertford and after a year as Club Auditor, Jackson took over as Senior Treasurer of OUAC, a position he held for some sixty years! As treasurer, he guided the club towards a position of international prominence and he himself became renowned as an authority figure within the sport. Jackson's efforts on behalf of the club went way beyond his duties as treasurer, being relied upon as a mentor and coach to the club's members. As a trusted official, Jackson was called upon to determine who had won in a close finish at the Varsity Sports. It is estimated that OUAC owes perhaps twenty Varsity match victories to his dark Blue bias and disdain for Cambridge.’
Two boat race umpires have attracted particular, if unjustified, opprobrium. In the nineteenth century, ‘Honest’ John Phelps, a professional waterman, is said to have called the 1877 race a ‘dead heat to Oxford by 5 feet’ but he was the finish judge and the ultimate responsibility rested with the umpire, a QC with a famous name in legal circles, Chitty, who confirmed that it was a dead heat. From then on, members of the universities took over the responsibilities of being the finish judge and posts were put down to help them.
Leaving aside some difficult umpiring decisions in the twentieth century, there was controversy in 2001. The umpire, Rupert Obholzer, an Oxford Blue and an Olympic medal-winner, was criticised by the losing Oxford president for calling a halt to the race and re-starting it after a clash of oars had left Cambridge disadvantaged. In 1991, Rupert Obholzer had himself been the victorious Oxford president in the Boat Race and was criticised for making an obscene gesture to the losing crew. His 2001 return saw Oxford berate him for over-compensating. He remains convinced that he did the right thing. In the best tradition of Steinitz, he immediately explained his decision:
One of the greatest Blues of all time, the golfer Cyril Tolley, was not above volunteering as a line judge in tennis. In that capacity, he has been blamed for one of the most controversial decisions in the history of that sport. The only singles match ever between two of the greatest women in tennis history, Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills (later known as Helen Willis Moody, having met Mr Moody at this game) took place in Paris in 1926. The Frenchwoman beat the American 6-2, 8-6. James Thurber was one of those in the crowd to have written about the game. In another account by the Associated Press, reported in the New York Times, ‘an unaccountable decision by the linesman completely threw’ the American, Helen Wills. She thought she had won the second set when she and the spectators assumed a return by Lenglen was out. Making no attempt to play the ball, she walked towards the umpire’s chair and for what she thought would be the deciding set. She was recalled and had an exchange with Cyril Tolley, asking: ‘what did you call that?’. ‘Inside,’ Tolley replied, whereupon ‘Helen threw up her hands in a gesture of despair, while thousands of spectators at her end of the court shouted “Out!”.’ This was said to have broken her spirit.
Reports, however, conflict, even in the same newspaper. Others place the crucial dispute at a different stage of the match and blame a different, albeit also British, line judge, Lord Charles Hope. Tolley and Hope played golf together in, for instance, the American Amateur championships of 1920. Tolley had won the Military Cross in the First World War before becoming a student at University College. He won the British Amateur Open both before and after his experiences of line judging at the highest levels of tennis. In a famous case, he turned to different kinds of umpires and courts when he believed that Fry’s, the chocolate makers, could have compromised his amateur status by using his image without permission for an advertisement. The very fact that he was well-known enough for Fry’s to have drawn on the public appreciation of him shows the impact he had. Talking of the courts, we will return in another essay to the Oxford character and sportsman the Hon Michael Beloff QC, who is one of the most distinguished sports lawyers in the world and who has served on appeal panels and courts of appeal in sporting settings, including at many Olympics. Meanwhile, Cyril Tolley, having insisted on his amateurism and yet given the law a nudge towards the modern professional focus on image rights, continued to serve sport out of the limelight. In his eighties, he was still president of the golf club he had joined almost seventy years earlier as a junior member, Eastbourne Downs.
There are, of course, even less glamorous roles than those of umpires, line judges, referees and their assistants. Students or alumni who are scorers or time-keepers also play their part in sport. Very occasionally, they can participate in historic occasions, such as when Roger Bannister ran the first sub four minute mile at Iffley Road in 1954. Accomplished athletes were there, in every sense, for the record. The announcer was Norris McWhirter. His twin brother Ross timed Bannister at the 1500 metre mark at 3 minutes 43 seconds, equalling the world record, and those whose stop-watches all agreed on 3 59.4 for the mile included the Cambridge Blue and Olympic gold medal winner, Harold Abrahams. Both the McWhirter twins sprinted for Oxford and became members of the Achilles Club of distinguished Oxford and Cambridge athletes. They turned record-keeping and the pursuit of world records into an art form and a business with their Guinness Book of World Records.
When Rupert Obholzer explained his decision to call for the 2001 Boat Race to be re-rowed, Matthew Pinsent was quoted as saying that he would never be an umpire. Sir Matthew is, however, now a member of the umpires’ panel for the Boat Race. Like Tolley and Tottman, those with Blues are among many who can see the importance of making the decision to be the decision-maker. Volunteering to officiate while at university, for instance in college games or in local leagues as David Elleray did, is a way of making an invaluable contribution to sport and is not confined to those who can play those sports at the highest levels.
Simon Lee, Balliol 1976-1979, Cricket Captain, Rugby Secretary, Sports Editor of Devorguila; Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast; Chairman, Level Partnerships Ltd; Chairman, John Paul II Foundation for Sport.