By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When watching women’s basketball at the Olympic Games over the past several decades, it’s not hard to see the Southeastern Conference’s impact. The 25 players and eight coaches who have participated at the sport’s highest level are the most visible league representatives, but for years, there has also been another representative of the SEC on the court.
Each year, the United States is eligible to send one officiating representative for the sport of women’s basketball and, all but one year since 1984, that referee has been among the SEC’s officiating pool.
Sally Bell, now the SEC’s Coordinator of Women’s Basketball Officials who spent 33 years as a basketball official at all levels, served the Olympic Games as a referee in the 1996 Games, which took place in her home state of Georgia.
“When I see the athletes now standing on the podium and they’re playing the national anthem, that’s exactly how I felt when I first walked out on the court at the Olympics,” Bell said by telephone on Wednesday. “I couldn’t believe I was refereeing the Olympics. The whole experience was so great.”
Felicia Grinter, who now referees women’s basketball for the SEC, along with other conferences is the 2012 U.S. women’s basketball refereeing representative, working the games in London. Bell is part of the selection committee that chooses the U.S. representative every four years.
“Dee Kantner and I are on the selection committee for the officials. We both worked the Olympics; she worked in Sydney in 2000,” Bell said. “We were part of the process of Felicia getting that opportunity and I’m so excited about that. Felicia worked my camp this summer and we did something special for her as a send-off. That was pretty exciting and it brought back a lot of memories. There’s such a kinship that we have because all but one of us has worked SEC ball.”
The process to put oneself in consideration to be an Olympic official is not an easy one. An official must first be certified through the FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, and have a resume of international officiating experience.
“They have to make a commitment to do that,” Bell said. “You have to be FIBA certified, which includes a physical test and a written test, and you have to recertify every year. It’s a different game you’re refereeing than you are in college. These officials work hard so that they will be qualified to referee the Olympics.”
The United States has always been at the forefront of Olympic women’s basketball, and there’s no exception when it comes to officiating. Darlene May, who never refereed in the SEC, became the first female ever to officiate an Olympic women’s basketball game, doing so in Los Angeles in 1984.
She laid the groundwork for SEC officials to get future calls for Olympic service. The following current or former SEC referees have worked the Olympic Games: Patty Broderick (1988), June Courteau (1992), Bell (1996), Kantner (2000), Nan Sisk (2004), Sue Blauch (2008) and Grinter (2012).
Bell long had aspirations of officiating the Olympics and, through hard work, had put herself in a good position for consideration.
After working the 1990 World Championships, Bell had hoped to be selected for the 1992 Games in Barcelona. But the call never came.
Fortunately for Bell, it couldn’t have happened any better.
She got her chance four years later as Atlanta played host to the 1996 Games, where she could work in front of family and friends on the highest international stage.
“When I didn’t get it in ‘92, it was a big disappointment for me,” Bell said. “It turned out for the absolute best because my family got to be a part of everything in ’96. Everybody was there and I got to do it in my own country. That was pretty cool.”
It wasn’t just her work on the basketball court that Bell experienced in Atlanta. She made sure to take in everything about the Olympic experience.
“The opening ceremonies were unbelievable,” Bell said. “We didn’t march in, but all the officials sat together in the same location – officials of all different sports. To be a part of that was just about as special as it could be. When I think of that today, it seems pretty surreal.
“I went to as much as I could,” Bell continued. “I went to track and field and we shared a venue site with gymnastics in the Georgia Dome – they split it in half; half for basketball and half for gymnastics – so I had the opportunity to view gymnastics. I’d watch all of the men’s games and all of the women’s games and walk back from the venue site through the Olympic Park.”
Given her many experiences in officiating and with the Olympic Games, what remains the most meaningful to Bell is the relationships she has built with people, especially her fellow officials.
“The people I worked the Olympics with were people that I had been working with at international tournaments,” Bell said. “You get to know people at these tournaments who are working at the highest level in their federations. The kinship that we have is just unlike any other thing.”