Chris McHugh and Damien Schumann were not the first Australians to take to the sand at Shiokaze Park when they faced world no. 1 Norway last Saturday.
South Australian official John Bennett is part of a 19-strong squad of beach volleyball referees appointed by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) to ensure the highest standards of officiating at the Tokyo Games. He is one of only three Challenge Referees who, for the first time in Olympic history, have been assigned to support the work of the first and second referee during beach volleyball matches.
Bennett refereed his first match on 24 July, taking responsibility for the highly-renowned Video Challenge System – the review process which was introduced at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to ensure greater accuracy and add to the spectacle of the sport.
And yet the postponement of the Tokyo Games and the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic had initially made the veteran referee reluctant to commit. Bennett, whose first Olympic participation as an official was in Sydney 2000, said he was pessimistic about travelling to Japan, knowing that the event was going to be vastly different to every other Olympic Games.
“Never mind the inconvenience of wearing masks all day, every day; of being limited to the hotel and the venue and going nowhere else; of having to quarantine in a medi-hotel when I get back.
“Besides all of that, sometimes I lose sight of the fact that this is all because there is a deadly virus running wild in the world, and we’re now bringing together people from all four corners of the globe for a massive sporting event,” he said.
And yet, once in Tokyo, Bennett was able to appreciate again the special atmosphere that made him love the Games in the first place, and rediscover those human connections that he has always cherished throughout his career as a referee.
“You start seeing your friends from around the world, who always have a kind word and a reassuring smile – unless they need one from you, which you give willingly as and when required – and you realise that yes, these Games will be different, but for me, the best part of refereeing was, is and always will be the crew that you work with.
“Now that I’m here, I realise that nothing has changed in that respect for these Games, and if anyone can effectively plan for and manage the COVID-19 situation, it’s the people of Japan.
“It’s going to be a very unique experience, but 21 years after Sydney, it’s an honour and a privilege to be part of the Olympics again,” he said.