Athletics in New South Wales owes a great debt to their volunteers.
During the 2018/19 season, 237 registered officials dedicated their spare time to ensure events run smoothly.
Without them, the sport wouldn’t survive.
A genuine passion for the sport is what keeps them coming back, and not many exemplify that love for athletics more than John Morris.
Morris has been serving as a technical official for over 20 years, dating back to the 1996 World Junior Athletics Championships right through to the recent 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Morris officiates at weekly interclub events, Athletics NSW & Little Athletics NSW meets, and dozens of school meets, ranging from zone to state level.
The 67-year-old’s contribution to the sport was acknowledged at the Sport NSW Community Sports Awards in June, where he was named a finalist for the Community Official of the Year.
Back in May, Morris was also announced Official of the Year at the Athletics NSW Annual Dinner in May.
During the 2018/19 season, Morris officiated at multiple athletics events both within and outside of Australia, including but not limited to the Melanesian Games in Vanuatu, Athletics New Zealand Championships in Auckland and the Australian Open & Junior Championships in Sydney.
A sprinter during his youth, Morris started officiating after serving as a primary school sports teacher.
“It was sometimes difficult because I was unaware of the rules of the sport; so I thought the best thing to do was to join an athletics club,” said Morris.
“I joined the Nowra Athletics Club, and from there I was encouraged by Jan Gibb to undertake some courses to find out what the rules were.”
From this initial introduction to officiating, Morris went on to become a central member of the Technical Information Centre (TIC) for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
“[Melbourne 2006] was a wonderful experience,” said Morris.
“I found that assisting people from other countries – and for many of them English wasn’t their first language – was extremely rewarding.
“As a primary school teacher and principal, that’s what you’re dealing with all the time; people are coming to you for advice and helping deal with problems.”
While Morris cites Cathy Freeman’s iconic 400m Gold Medal run during the 2000 Olympics as a highlight, the 2011 World Championships for Athletes with a Disability in Christchurch was the most memorable event of his officiating career.
One Fijian athlete’s inspirational performance will remain with Morris for many years.
“A Fiji athlete with one leg came to the high jump in hospital crutches.
“When his name was called, he put down his crutches, six hops, and he cleared well over 1.80m.
“That was very inspiring for us able-bodied people.
“When you get to the World Championships for athletes with a disability, you’re looking at the best that the world can produce.
“I think the determination and friendship that they displayed between each other counts for a certain amount of reward.”
Morris and fellow volunteer Barry Pecar have been actively recruiting the next generation of athletics officials for many years, primarily focusing on training schoolteachers.
Despite a 13% increase of registered officials from last season, Morris concedes that trained volunteers are difficult to acquire.
“Nowadays volunteers are not easy to come by… it sometimes is a struggle to get officials to participate,” said Morris.
“When I was growing up, the working week was 9-5, Monday to Friday and you had your weekends.
“Now of course, with a different population, a variation in the workforce, you’ve got people whose weekend might be Thursday, Friday.
“They can’t give their time as they would possibly like to.”
Supporting new officials with education and resources is critical to the survival of the sport, and Morris continues to encourage the next batch of volunteers through his training with Pecar.
“The only thing we can do is to make it easier for officials to join – put out the welcome mat for argument’s sake, provide them with a mentor so they feel comfortable and they’re encouraged,” said Morris.
“There is slowly a group coming through who are really dedicated and want to learn – they’re the ones we have to identify and nurture.
“Officials need to possess a sound understanding of the rules and their various track roles.
“Ongoing learning by officials will enhance the opportunities for athletes to reach their potential.”
Athletics New South Wales Chair Dr Peter Higgins praised Morris for his humility and mentorship to other aspiring officials.
“John Morris deserves every accolade that can be offered to him by our sport. He is selfless and puts the needs of others in front of his own,” said Higgins.
“He works diligently behind-the-scenes and whilst he has achieved a great deal in our sport I have never once heard him big noting himself.”
“John has devoted his entire life to teaching and was the principal of a primary school before retiring; that teaching philosopher comes through in his approach to our sport because he is constantly training and mentoring people so that they can better themselves and reach their full potential.”
“He has mentored officials not just in New South Wales but in the other states of Australia and indeed New Zealand – I would like to personally thank John because he was one of my mentors as well.”
Many would question why volunteers give so much for what is seemingly so little in return. According to Morris, the camaraderie between officials and sense of gratification can’t be replicated off the track.
“I consider athletics a bit like the police or nursing – we’re a helping profession, and also there’s the camaraderie between the officials,” said Morris.
“I know that every time we get together, it’s a good opportunity to talk, to share experiences.
“We don’t talk about athletics; we talk about families, experiences that we’ve been on.
“As officials, we want to be out there and give the athletes every opportunity to perform personal bests or to continue to improve.
“People come not to watch the officials; they come to watch the athletes, and what we need to do is support the athletes.”