Commonwealth Games umpire Jamie Hooper on Rainbow Laces, how hockey uses 'VAR', and his Gold Coast adventure
An incredible location, an extra-special tournament, and a cause close to his heart - Jamie Hooper gives us the lowdown on his Commonwealth Games experience
Last Updated: 13/04/18 5:22pm
"This is my first taste of hockey on a world-level stage; it's a whole new ball game!"
Jamie Hooper is having the time of his life at the Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast. The 27-year-old Welshman is one of the group of umpires taking charge of matches in the men's hockey tournament. It's been quite a journey - at the last Games in Glasgow four years ago, he was in the crowd watching, with any thoughts of being involved on the pitch a distant dream.
Hooper was promoted onto the International Hockey Federation (FIH) ranks 18 months ago after impressing as an official in the England Hockey League, and he learned of his selection for Oz in September 2017. So far in the tournament, he's taken charge of three Pool A games; the semi-finals took place on Friday - Australia beat England 2-1, and India lost 3-2 to New Zealand - and then come the all-important medal matches.
Jamie spoke to Sky Sports from Australia to explain more about his experiences at the Games, and also why he's supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign by wearing them while umpiring...
The Commonwealth Games is extra special, as it's the highest level that some athletes can represent their home nation. Being from Wales, it's so great to be able to share that experience with the players, and the Gold Coast is such an incredible location too. Every single day I wake up, look at the view out of our beachfront apartment, and still can't quite believe this is happening.
It has been a long road getting to this tournament for me - making lifestyle changes, and fighting through illness and injury to improve my fitness. Before the tournament, all umpires were asked to submit monthly fitness results across a range of tests, showing progress and aiming to get better scores each time. I started working on a new strength and conditioning programme about nine months ago, and I completely changed my diet in order to get fitter and healthier.
The umpires for the tournament come from all over the world, so preparation as a team can be difficult. We tend to use online networks to share video clips and discuss these around different themes, aiming to ensure that the umpires are arriving at the tournament with consistent interpretations of rules and decisions. Once we get to the tournament, we then have a number of briefings as a group across both the male and female teams to go through rules and regulations before the action starts, and these continue to be reviewed and discussed as the tournament progresses to ensure we're staying on track.
At this level, we also have video umpires too, which on-pitch umpires are now rotating in to do. It's part of a new approach from the FIH in the build-up to the start of the new global Hockey Pro League next year. This means that we also have a separate video umpire briefing, and the process and use of video referrals will be monitored throughout the tournament too.
There also tends to be a lot of downtime in between games during a tournament. It can be tricky to get the balance right between business and pleasure, and it's easy to make a whole day revolve around one game that might begin at 9.30pm, which can be very draining. At the end of the tournament, each umpire gets a feedback report that contains scores across a number of areas agreed by both umpire managers and the tournament director. Overall we're scored out of 10, and are all working towards improvement and promotion to the next international panel.
The Commonwealth Games offers something very different to some of the other major tournaments. It gives smaller hockeying nations the chance to compete with some of the powerhouses of the modern game, and play against nations from different continents with very different styles to what they might be used to. In several cases, that means it's part-time athletes competing against full-time athletes. Any major multi-sport event is obviously very special, but the Commonwealth Games is something with a little bit more pizzazz, especially for those UK home nations.
On a personal note, I came out as gay to family and friends at 15 years of age, and I was out throughout high school, college and university - and now in my umpiring career too. I've always played sport myself throughout this time too, and I've had only positive experiences. I can very honestly say that I've never had one single negative experience related to being gay, either on or off the pitch, and that has to send a powerful message about LGBT inclusion in hockey.
Being able to completely be myself is so special, and something I'm so grateful for. It's helped make my Commonwealth Games experience hugely positive.
I know of very few LGBT male players, officials or support staff, especially at an international level - and I think that's a shame. We have two incredible ambassadors in of Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh and other amazing female spearheads, but we're definitely still missing some role models on the men's side of the game. Perhaps there are male hockey players out there who are out, proud and able to play completely as themselves. I hope so - it would be great to discuss this with them in the future and share our experiences.
The interesting part of my umpiring career now is having to come out at each tournament I go to. Do I mention something to the Russian guy? Will he then avoid me? I don't want to make him feel uncomfortable around me... would it then affect his tournament? Do I have to put my welfare first? But does it even matter? These are examples of some of the questions that I ask myself. Having said that, the higher up the ladder you go, the more of a family it becomes. You often see the same people at a lot of different tournaments, and that definitely helps. It would probably be tough initially to be 'the new kid on the block', and quite intimidating coming into a group where everyone knows each other pretty well, especially if you might think that you're a bit different or are in the minority.
I very proudly wear my Rainbow Laces to umpire each match that I do, and it means an awful lot to me. Each time I tie up those laces before a game, I'm reminded of who I am, and who I'm able to genuinely be when I step out on the pitch. Being able to completely be myself is so special, and something I'm so grateful for. It's helped make my Commonwealth Games experience hugely positive. I already knew a few of the umpires, but some I didn't know, and it hasn't been a problem at all. My partner is also coming out to stay with me towards the end of the tournament and everyone has been asking about him and is excited to meet him, which is amazing!
I also think that wearing Rainbow Laces at an international tournament like this, with a big media reach, is so important if you get the opportunity to do so. Even if one person spots them during a game and thinks 'ah, that's nice', or 'oh wow, that's great', or someone is able to identify in some way, then it's worth doing it. I'm just one person, and my laces are sometimes hidden slightly under my trousers, but when you see them, you see them - and that might just be enough to send a really strong message to someone.
Last year, I had a message from a young American umpire who had been struggling with his sexuality. It was an example of how being out and open yourself can make a real difference. I'd written an article for England Hockey to mark LGBT History Month on being an umpire who was gay, and - to our surprise - it went viral across the hockey world. It also led to one of the proudest and most humble moments in my life when I received the message from the guy in the US, telling me my article had given him the confidence to start to come out to friends and family within the hockey world, and that he was receiving nothing but positive responses. That for me is so special and exactly why we should be using the platforms we have access to in order to show others that it's OK to be LGBT in sport.
It's interesting being in Australia at the same time that Israel Folau has been criticised for posting anti-LGBT views on social media. My thoughts on this are similar to those of Nigel Owens, in that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but when it runs the risk of causing harm to others, perhaps it's best to think twice before sharing it with the world? I would never disregard anyone's opinion - my interest lies in the thoughts behind those opinions, and how someone has come to a certain conclusion. People who have similar opinions to Folau should be careful how they share them with the world, and consider the kind of influence they have. When you have that much influence, you have a responsibility to use it wisely.
There's a Pride House here at the Commonwealth Games, which is a space where anyone is assured of a friendly welcome regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. I think it's a fantastic idea. LGBT people are definitely still finding their way in sport, especially at big events like this, but I love the idea of being able to go and meet other people like you and their supporters. For example, if you're struggling for whatever reason, it can help prevent you feeling isolated amongst the crowds. I'm sure there'll be a Pride House at Birmingham 2022 too, and hopefully we'll see them at all major sporting events in the future.