(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the club)
We sat there looking forward to some good performances from our team. Over the speaker system came the usual fire and safety announcement, and a cheery welcome, followed by an invitation to greet our Swimming Technical Officials for the first session of the day. A lively Scottish reel then blared out which just made you want to tap your toes and put your hands together. We clapped in unison as the white line of gala officials snaked its way along the poolside. And we clapped. And clapped. And kept clapping, until they were all finally dispersed around the pool. I counted 56 - I may have missed a couple.
Now, if you are from outwith the sport of swimming in Scotland you may be forgiven for thinking that "56" is a typo, but try not to guffaw too loudly when I tell you it is not! Yes, there were the best part of 60 (to confirm: six, zero) people to officiate at the gala I was at where a state of the art electronic timing system had also been employed! No other sport that I can think of (with the possible exception of some of the player/match official ratios sometimes achieved in tennis) is so obsessed with the recruitment, training, assessment and use of officials. Admittedly, this was an eight lane pool and a swimming meet of some importance, but the following day's gala was not. It was a mini-meet (for children aged 8-11 years) in a 4-lane local pool. But here I still counted 30. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What exactly do they do?
Well, the vast majority are parents of children who swim 'supplied' by the various participating clubs. They are well-intentioned volunteers and, the way things are structured at the moment, necessary for the successful accreditation of each meet. No accreditation and the swimmers cannot use the times they achieve to enter major competitions. So swimmers have learned to treat the very rare not-maximally-accredited meets with caution... just in case. And the participating clubs are regularly "invited" to volunteer people to help fulfil the requirements of each accredited meet.
To become a qualified Swimming Technical Official the volunteers (though I get the distinct impression that a good few of them are actually pressed-ganged into it) undergo varying amounts of training both in the classroom as well as on the poolside. For example, to become a Level 1 Judge, the first rung on the official officiating ladder, the curriculum covered includes time-keeping as well as the start of the development of the necessary skills to empower you to disqualify any unfortunate swimmer who happens to accidentally transgress the international laws that govern the sport (usually, though not exclusively, our very youngest swimmers who can often be seen demotivated and crying on the poolside) you need to:
• Attend a workshop on how to become a time-keeper.
• Attend 10 sessions (usually lasting about three and half hours each including the briefing beforehand) at swimming meets acting in the capacity of both a time-keeper and on a least two occasions, a chief-timekeeper as well.
• Attend an initial Group Session training session.
• Be mentored for at least an hour on 3 or 4 separate occasions at swimming meets where there is the capacity for mentoring
• Attend a second Group Session training session
• Complete a further 3 or 4 mentored sessions
Successful completion of the built-in assessment process then allows you to volunteer to support the officiating function at future meets which may well in turn amount to a further considerable undertaking during the year. If it hasn't occurred to you by now that this is an incredible waste of most volunteers' time and energy, a squandering of so much of their contribution to the sport, then thank your lucky stars that your children don't play tennis as well! What in effect is happening is that the voluntary time people are prepared to put into their child's sport is being sucked overwhelmingly into a completely bloated officiating system at the expense of other ways in which they could invest that freely given energy: fund-raising, organising social events, offering poolside assistance, team managing, sourcing equipment, supporting the Management Committee, etc. Is it really necessary for mini-meets to be accredited? And how much richer in every way would every one of our clubs be if most of this willing workforce could be put to better use? I leave you, dear reader, to ponder the answer...