By Julie Forget (Fortius Communications)
Photo courtesy of Thorsten Gohl
They have one of the most important jobs in a table tennis tournament, and also have arguably the best seat in the house for every match. They must be professional, knowledgeable, and quick, and if you’re good – you can travel the world. What job is it? The umpire!
Darek Mikita from Winnipeg, MB is an umpire, and one of only seven highly-ranked International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Blue Badge umpires in Canada. He recently returned from umpiring at the 2021 World Championships in Houston, and then this weekend (Dec 18), he’ll be umpiring and helping to organize a local tournament back in Winnipeg. To him, he’ll treat the matches exactly the same way – by putting his whole heart into it, because Mikita loves being a table tennis umpire.
“What I love is the challenge. The challenge of making sure that you are very quick at recognizing any breaches of the rules, and you must do this very quickly. This is where the stress comes from in being an umpire. And that rush is what I think we all like about being an umpire,” said Mikita who first became an umpire back in 1987 after moving to Canada from Poland.
“You have that rush of being part of great games, and being a part of it without influencing the outcome by making sure you call the game properly and you’re gaining the respect of the players and the coaches. That’s what makes me tick, and what makes me love to be part of it. You’re in the middle of a great game of table tennis, and you’re the closest to the game because you’re sitting only a few metres from great players.”
Mikita has been fortunate enough in his umpiring career to sit only a few metres from some of the greatest matches in history. He attended his first major games in 1996 when he was an umpire at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, and then eight years later, he was selected for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
“Athens is where the (modern) Olympics started, so I was very proud, and pleased that I was selected by the ITTF and accepted by the IOC (for those Games). I was ecstatic to represent Canada at the Olympic Games.”
Being selected to umpire at an Olympic Games is generally considered to be a once in a lifetime opportunity for an umpire, and Mikita reached this pinnacle after rising through the ranks – first as a club umpire in 1987, to a provincial-level umpire in Manitoba a few years later, and then national-level, and finally an international-level umpire in 1993. But it was in 2004 that he reached the pinnacle of umpiring when the Blue Badge category was introduced by the ITTF.
“Around 2004, the ITTF recognized differences in international umpires around the world, from the perspective of how they are being taught, and how much experience they have, so they created a new category of higher level umpires called ‘Blue Badge’ for the top-level umpires around the world. There are now just over 200 people around the world with this designation and seven of us in Canada.”
Blue Badge umpires have to be evaluated on a yearly basis by the ITTF who watch them during a match, but with so few international tournaments being held in North America, it’s a tough status to maintain says Mikita because of the travel involved, and the time off of work required. It’s a big reason why he thinks many young athletes don’t make the move into becoming an umpire when they retire.
“I’m somewhat disappointed that many players retire when they enter University. That’s kind of mind boggling to me – that the majority of players are not entering into the umpiring life. To me they would be perfect candidates to become very good umpires because they played the game, and they know the game. (But), you are sacrificing your personal time and personal finances to do this. I think that’s the choice that maybe stops players from going into being an umpire.”
One young player who has made the move into being an umpire is Keven Lachaîne from Quebec. Newly named as a Corresponding Member on the ITTF’s Umpires & Referees Committee, he’s now an internationally ranked umpire and excited for future opportunities.
“When I was 16, I had failed to qualify for the Quebec Games as an athlete and the referee approached me and asked me if I wanted to come to the Games as a umpire and I accepted. It was a magical event for me because I lived the experience of the Quebec Games and being an umpire is demanding and I loved the challenge! Step by step I’ve taken part in bigger events and gained maturity and confidence.”
As for being named to the ITTF’s Umpires and Referees Committee (URC), Keven states: “I am very grateful to have been nominated first by TTCAN and then selected by the ITTF. The work of recent years is bearing fruit. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting it, but being the youngest on the committee warms my heart and motivates me to work harder.”
Lachaîne is also the Chair of the Umpires and Referees Committee for Table Tennis Canada and is working hard to make the selection process and selection criteria to become an umpire more clear and transparent so that all umpires and referees are included, and so they can develop and continue for a long time in the sport.
“Being an umpire is not easy,” says Lachaîne. “ You have to be impartial, methodical, patient, and above all, not take anything personally. But I think people in the table tennis community should consider becoming an umpire or referee because you are part of the action and you’re involved in the game. It takes you on a journey and you work a lot on yourself as an umpire.”
Mikita agrees: “There is nothing simple about being a good level umpire. The rule book is fairly thick and being abreast of all of the rules and making sure that you are becoming a part of the game, rather than influencing the outcome of the game is a very interesting balance of judgement. You have to be very quick at making calls that are going to not influence the outcome of the game, and there are very significant rules that you have to be very quick on recognizing and calling immediately.
But, I learn from every person that I meet as well. So yes, it’s a great experience but trying to balance your professional life can be tricky as you have to use vacation time to attend tournaments. But if you love the sport of table tennis, if you love any sport, there is definitely that dedication that needs to come, and that you follow what’s in your heart.”
To find out more about becoming an umpire in Canada, please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org