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Port Hope couple inducted into Athletics Ontario Hall of Fame

Cecilia Nasmith

By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today

Port Hope resident Betty Watson displays the award given to her and her late husband David, signifying their induction into the  Athletics Ontario Hall of Fame. They were behind the scenes in a variety of roles for more than 30 years, and wrote the book — literally — on the Athletes Control Centre. The  manual has been adapted nationally and internationally by the AAF.
CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland Today

Port Hope resident Betty Watson displays the award given to her and her late husband David, signifying their induction into the Athletics Ontario Hall of Fame. They were behind the scenes in a variety of roles for more than 30 years, and wrote the book — literally — on the Athletes Control Centre. The manual has been adapted nationally and internationally by the AAF. CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland Today

It all started for Betty Watson and her late husband David when their daughter Betty went out for track.

It culminated last month, when the couple were inducted into the Athletics Ontario Hall of Fame for more than 30 years of service at events from the local to the international level.

As the write-up in the program for the event stated, “David set the standard and wrote the book — literally — on the Athletes Control Centre, along with Betty. The manual has been adapted nationally and internationally by the AAF.”

The program also acknowledged their decades of officiating at countless events over more than three decades.

Interviewed last week, Betty recalls how restless her husband would get at their daughter's track meets. That's how he got started officiating.

“After he started, I started,” she said.

Both would later rise through the qualification ranks, Betty to Level 4, and David to Level 5 — international level.

David did starting, and eventually went into training more starters. He did the starting at everything from local high school and Terry Fox events to wheelchair parasport games.

You'd often find Betty at the finish line. She was stationed there to time the athletes and to serve as a reader in case of a photo finish — the term used for the person who reviews the footage and makes the call.

In those days, she said, it was decided by actual film that was developed on-site. She recalls the day the battery on the machine failed, and her friend actually had to go fetch the battery from her car to get the developing finished.

And because an acid bath was involved in the process, she added, “Nobody wore their best clothes.”

Nowadays, these questions are decided by a computer, with no delay for photo development.

One of Betty's biggest reads ever came when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson made his 1991 comeback.

“He came in second — I read the film for that in Hamilton at the Spectator Games,” she said.

Another amazing memory of hers is their work at the world juniors event that took place in Sudbury not long after the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. They had to wear ID at all times, she said, and the OPP, RCMP and Sudbury police were everywhere. The track was in a natural bowl surrounded by hills, and people with guns were on constant patrol.

Exchanging words with a plain-clothes officer, Dave heard how the officer was supposed to be incognito but was given a signal to deploy in case he saw anything suspicious — a tug on the ear.

“Later, he said, 'Guess what was itching.'”

Both of them gradually got into athlete control, Betty for the first time at the SkyDome in Toronto and Dave little later.

Though he never went out of the country, Dave had the opportunity to work at a lot of international events, including Commonwealth Games in Victoria and Winnipeg, where he was responsible for athlete control.

“I went to Winnipeg as a volunteer, but I did work in the Athlete Control Centre too,” she said.

This is where the behind-the-scenes stuff happens. Athletes are checked in a half-hour before their events, and their times and events will be posted. They will be called in from their warm-up exercises in time to compete. Any equipment will be checked to ensure it meets regulations. Their bags will be searched to ensure they aren't carrying drugs or anything else they're not supposed to have.

“At one time we had to take away their cell phones and put them in a bag with their number on it for later. But they changed it — as long as the phones are switched off, it's okay,” she said.

For a big event, their garb will be checked to make sure each athlete is wearing the right colour and number (an important consideration with international events).

For multi-lane events, they will be lined up according to which lane they are in and they will be escorted into starting position.

The Watsons began arranging their holiday time around the events they were called upon to work. Their trip to Winnipeg, for example — they did a Kitchener track meet, then took a little time along the way to enjoy the ferry to Tobermory, and then on to Winnipeg. Their return trip took them by way of Sarnia, where they worked a parasport game.

“During the summer, practically every weekend we were somewhere doing a track meet,” she said.

There have been a fair number of indoor events as well, which means they worked year-round.

And these officials are not paid, Betty said.

Their expenses are covered, like hotel and mileage for their car, but their hours of time are donated.

And they were often out-of-pocket for equipment, like the three starter's pistols Dave bought over the years and the measuring equipment he purchased to ensure the length of the athletes' spikes and the size of the wheelchair wheels was within regulations.

Dave retired from these activities at about age 75, when his eyesight began to go.

It takes a lot out of someone at a certain age, Betty said. You have to show up early and stay on the field except for a lunch break — an hour, provided all the events are running on time, and less time if they are not.

It's a long day, she said.

“And I have been in some miserable weather, like a track meet one May at York University where we just about froze. It was drizzling, wet and cold, and it went right through you. We kept layering stuff on just to keep warm.

“One event in Tillsonburg absolutely poured with rain. I was using the wind gauge to test the wind for the springs, and I was just trying to keep it covered so it wouldn't get wet. The track was aswell with water.

“About the only thing an event will stop for is a thunderstorm.”

But there have been kudos along the way, like the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and immigration 30-year Volunteer Service Awards.

The letter informing her of the latest honour bestowed on the couple was a wonderful surprise, she said.

“It sort of came out of the blue — I haven't done track meets for seven or eight years, so I was really surprised.”

Her daughter Dawn – who was an international-level athlete in modern pentathlon – escorted her, and the event was attended by the rest of her family. Betty arrived from Barrie and her sister Leslie from Hamilton, with grandchildren in tow to witness the proud moment.

Dawn Watson said that her dad, who passed away four years ago, was always the one who got up to speak.

“But this time my mom had to and she did a fantastic job,” she said.

cnasmith@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/NT_cnasmith