Man with golden gun who false-started Bolt

Disqualifying world's fastest man was 'easy'. Even Usain's mum called him a 'silly boy'. By Simon Turnbull
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Alan Bell shakes his head as he peruses the faded programme from the North Tyneside Silver Jubilee Sports in July 1977. "No," he says, he can't recall any false-start shenanigans surrounding the final of the youths' 200m that day, won by an S Turnbull of Gateshead Harriers. "Funnily enough, that one slipped my mind."

The final of the men's 100m at the World Championships on 28 August this year is a different matter.

It was Bell, a rookie starter on the North-east track-and-field scene back in 1977, who instructed the eight finalists to get to their marks in Daegu five weeks ago. It was the one-time Northumberland and Durham high jump record holder who, via the microphone system linked to each set of starting blocks, informed the athlete in lane five that he had been disqualified. As it happened, having clearly jumped out of his blocks before the report of Bell's starting gun, U Bolt of Jamaica was already anticipating his fate.

"It was probably the easiest decision I've had to make at a major event," Bell reflects, sitting in a quiet corner of Mrs Miggins' Coffee House in the Northumberland market town of Hexham. "It was so obvious. The hardest thing was realising who it was in lane five, but as an official you have to stay absolutely antiseptic. The personality is not something that you have to engage with. But I think an awful lot of credit has to go to Usain Bolt for the way he conducted himself. He realised he was at fault. He actually didn't have to formally be told. But I had to tell him and he just accepted it.

"The strange thing about the whole incident was I walked back to the stand after the 100m to meet my partner, Lesley, and I found her sitting next to Usain's mam and dad. I'd met Mr and Mrs Bolt before and as I climbed the steps I couldn't sort of change direction; I had to approach them. Mrs Bolt came towards me, and I was a bit apprehensive because she would obviously be upset. And all she said was: 'He's a silly boy.' And I thought to myself: 'Well, there's one hell of a level-headed woman, who's also very gracious'."

Bell himself showed a level head in preventing the drama of Bolt's disqualification becoming a crisis. While a swarm of photographers encroached on to the track to snap the disqualified Jamaican at close quarters, the English chief starter switched off his main microphone, which is audible to all in the stadium, and told the remaining seven finalists to stay calm.

"My concern was two-fold," Bell recalls. "I wanted Usain Bolt to go somewhere to maintain his dignity because he obviously became the centre of attention. And then there were seven other people who still wanted to try and win a gold medal. So you have to try and stay calm and almost reconstruct the atmosphere to give those guys the best chance."

Drawing upon his 35 years of experience in the starting game, having risen to become the track world's most trusted man with the golden gun after setting out in modest local park events, Bell succeeded in keeping the situation under control and getting the remainder of the field up and running at the second time of asking. Walter Dix, the American silver medallist, praised the English official's calmness and collectedness.

As for Bell, a youthful-looking 60-year-old who hails from Chester-le-Street, lives near Carlisle and works for the Youth Sport Trust, he remained cool in the heated aftermath, with much of the world calling for a change to the one-strike-and-out false-start regulation that was adopted at the start of the 2010 track season. "I think there was undoubtedly a knee-jerk reaction because of who was involved," he says. "Would the same debate have been happening publicly had it been another athlete? Probably not.

"What's been forgotten in all of this discussion I think is that Usain Bolt did the same thing in Berlin in the semi-final, which I started. He just rolled out of his blocks."

On that occasion, in the days when one false-start by one of the field was permitted before a disqualification, Bolt was allowed to get back to his marks for the re-start – and proceeded to clock a world record 9.58sec in the final, with Bell again setting him on his way. Significantly, after winning the 200m final in Daegu, Bolt said he was opposed to a quick-fire revision of the rule-book. "It was my own fault," he said. "It taught me a lesson. You should wait and listen and respect the guy with the gun."

The respect is mutual. "I think the integrity of the person showed through with his comments," Bell says. "My own opinion is that over the last two seasons, since the rule has been amended, the discipline of the world's top athletes at the start has improved immeasurably. They respond accurately and positively to the instruction. They hold their positions well and give me the opportunity to start fairly for all eight athletes.

"It also has cut out gamesmanship, delaying tactics, and what I'd call the chancers – the people who gamble. Most of the false-starts we see now at major events frankly are bizarre lapses in concentration. They're not people trying to gain an advantage."

Bell will be applying the rule as the chief starter at the Olympic Games in London next year – and also at the Paralympics. He will be doing so as an unpaid official, working around his full-time job as international development co-ordinator for the Youth Sport Trust.

"We've been given the opportunity through the British Council to lead an education legacy programme for the Olympic Games, called International Inspiration," he says. "We also have a domestic programme called Young Officials. We're looking to recruit 10,000 young people across the country and train them to become officials so they can be part of the legacy to the Games. We can't all be the Usain Bolts or the Wayne Rooneys but we might love athletics or football, so why not become an official?"

It might even bring you face to face with the Lightning Bolt himself.

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