The Olympic Referees: what do we hope to see from them?

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A few days ago, I wrote about the unusually young group of referees who will be handling the Olympic handball. I noted that they, of course, have been in several IHF events before, so they should have a clear a sense for what the IHF, and especially the teams, want to see from them. And they have been selected on the basis of showing a certain ability to live up to the expectations placed on them.

The IHF Referee Commission always takes great care in connection with the Olympic Games to provide the referees with all the necessary instructions regarding important rules issues and interpretations. But it should be noted that the focus is on reminding the referees about points of particular importance and on giving feedback about the aspects which have led to less satisfaction in recent World and Continental Championships. What must not happen is that the referees are given ‘new’ instructions or any advice that would suggest major changes in interpretations or procedures. On the contrary, the teams must be able to trust that they are not encountering any surprises when the event starts.

Even beyond that, the real objective should be to get all the referee couples on the same wavelength, so that there are no differences in interpretations and styles between couples or from one game to another. We do not want ‘robots’ out there, and their personalities are not supposed to be ‘erased’, but consistency is the key word.

Consistency also means applying the rules in the same way from the first moment of a game to the last. For many years now, it has been emphasized that serious fouls early in the game must be identified and handled firmly. If a foul deserves a direct 2-minute penalty or even a disqualification, then it is not an excuse that it is (‘too’) early in the game and that all the yellow cards have not been ‘used up’. Similarly, the rules do not change in the final, critical moments of a game. The referees must show courage and avoid the temptation of becoming ‘diplomatic’ in those situations, meaning that they overlook infractions or penalize too softly. We do not want to see that the team which is more cynical or ruthless than their opponents gets an advantage.

In some recent events, including EURO 2012, there was a general sense that the handling of offensive fouls had been a week point. The most common problem was that such fouls were ‘invented’, meaning that offensive fouls were called even if the confronting defender was moving, or if there was a sufficient path between two defenders. But the opposite mistake also happened: clear offensive fouls were not detected, especially away from the ball. More generally, action away from the ball requires strong attention. Players are very ‘smart’ in realizing when they can more easily get away with something without being caught. Especially the struggle between attacker and defender on the 6-meter line is critical. It is necessary to take action to put a stop to the ‘wrestling’ and to detect who was the instigator.

There is always an inclination to give too many hints, so that the overall message becomes diluted. Therefore I will not comment on other aspects of a technical nature. But I really do want to finish by emphasizing the role of our referees in maintaining a positive atmosphere and creating a good image for our sport. This involves maintaining sufficient discipline, with a clear line (for both coaches and players) between spontaneous reactions and systematic protesting and provocations. Similarly, the faking of injuries and the general attempts to mislead the referees (and provoke the opponents) by falling or screaming in a dramatic way must be brought under control.

I emphasized in my earlier article that we need referees who have the physical capacity to match the speed and the physicality of the game. But I also noted that, ideally, this should be combined with experience. And while experience can be important for the ability to judge body contact etc., it is perhaps even more important in the context of handling the relations with the players and coaches and even for the self-control of the referees. Yes, we want quick reactions and good instincts, but we also need the ability to stay cool and to avoid impulsive actions and decisions. Let us hope it works out!