Day that ‘marshal’ Alterman got the drop on Usain Bolt

I first encountered Gerald Alterman at a busy indoor meeting five years ago. Amid the chaos of competitors preparing for their races, his was a voice of calm authority, interspersed with friendly greetings and a reassuring comment here and there to nervous young athletes.


Yet only a few months earlier, Gerald had been carrying out the same role at the Olympic Stadium, marshalling the likes of Usain Bolt.

 “I approach every meeting in same way, to the same standards, whether it’s local schools or the Olympics,” he said. “That’s the way the youngsters learn.”

A member of Woodside Park synagogue in London, Gerald  was born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, where synagogue services were held in his grandfather’s home. He went to school and cheder locally and later qualified in law, before moving into a career in IT.

He was invited to become a race starter in 1981 by Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers, where his twin daughters trained.

He recalls: “There weren’t any courses then.  I just read a book about it, got a gun licence and bought two pistols from the local gun shop. My first meeting was at Copthall (now Allianz Park) and I really enjoyed it.”

Gerald’s first international meeting was the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. “I was in the first call room, getting everyone signed in and checking their spikes and race numbers. It’s one of the best roles, because you get to interact with the athletes. And it’s a lot more relaxed than the second call room, which is much quieter. Final checks are done and the athletes chill and get in the zone.”

At the 2012 Olympics, Gerald was again chosen for the first call room, and was assigned to none other than Bolt. “Bolt had his Gatorade (sports fruit drink). I knew his plan would be to take a swig and return it to his bag with the label facing the camera. But the brand wasn’t an official Olympics sponsor, so I took the bottle from him. He wasn’t happy and protested: ‘You just cost me $1,000’. I replied: ‘You can afford it!’.

That incident prompted Bolt to complain publicly about “petty” officials at the Games. “But athletes know full well what isn’t allowed and they try it on, like hiding mobiles in rolled-up socks. Bolt apologised to me later and told me he regretted what he had said.”

More recently, Gerald was chief starter at the inaugural Invictus Games in London and, these days, his skills are more in demand than ever. “The number of officials nationally is dwindling and there is a shortage in all disciplines. We need more volunteers to get in touch with England Athletics and become involved. They will be welcomed. And it is far quicker to qualify now than when I started.” There are still very few Jewish officials, and Gerald believes he is the only Jewish race starter.  

Outside of athletics, Gerald is a senior first-aider, including volunteering twice monthly at Mill Hill JACS, where his sporting connections brought in friend and Paralympic 
multiple gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson as a guest speaker.

Now 78, Gerald has no plans to slow down. “I’ve always said that when I feel I’m no longer working at my best or I  don’t enjoy what I do any more, I’ll stop. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

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