Referees and Rings

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Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling in some ways never changes. Hipes and buttocks were the same animal in 1810 on the Swifts racecourse down by the River Eden as they were at the new Carlisle Racecourse this month. But this most traditional of sports constantly evolves to fit in with social and legal pressures of the time.

To be a referee in Victorian times you had to have a stovepipe hat, a frock coat and an aura of self-importance, if you believe the old pictures. In my youth, fifty years ago, three elderly men used to meet regularly in the middle of the ring to pass the time of day and give decisions on close falls. No doubt some young lad may read this and say Nowt changes, but refereeing has changed, and significantly.

For a start, there are no discussions in the middle of the ring. The two judges are expected to give their decision instantly based on what they could see rather than on what might have happened. If they agree then that is the decision; if not then the referee has to agree with one of them or call a dog fall. A majority decision is entirely logical, and the best option, but that has not always been the case.

The biggest difference for referees in the past decades is that they are no longer passive observers of the action, but are constantly involved. The referee is responsible for the draw, the taking-hold, the safe progress of the bout, the decision, and communicating it to the commentator and crowd.

We now have a list of approved referees, so that we no longer have the old worthy turning out as referee at the local show, and using the standards he remembers from his distant experience of a wrestler post-War. Most of those on the list were at the second annual workshop for referees last week to review the previous year, discuss any changes of law and interpretation, and add names to the list. As well as the main list there is also one for new referees who are active wrestlers or new to officiating. They cut their teeth on controlling junior wrestling, before moving to the seniors.

Last year's emphasis on the rule that wrestlers, once they have hold before the action starts, must keep hold or lose the bout, was adjudged a success. But at the same time referees must stop wrestlers fighting for hold, or taking a greedy hold with left elbow low.

The longest and most detailed session was about when a bout is to be declared out of the ring. Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, outdoors, requires a ring at least 14 metres in diameter, with an extra two metres safety zone. The practice is to mark the ring with a sawdust line. The referees agreed that a fall has to be completed within or on the line to count. The wrestlers may sprawl beyond the line but if any part has touched down prior to that, then the fall counts. A fall begun in the ring but completed outside does not score.

The referees also agreed to the formation of a small advisory panel of referees who were given the task of helping the novice referees and also advising senior referees when appropriate.

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (February 10th 2011)

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