By Rob Forman for Rutgers Today
Much of the sports world focused on South Korea last month as athletes from 143 nations competed in the 28th summer World University Games. At the rowing venue in the city of Chungju, the eyes of Ronald Chen, co-dean of Rutgers Law School, were firmly on the athletes. It was Chen’s job as a veteran rowing umpire to enforce the rules of the sport he loves.
Chen has crisscrossed the globe for 35 years as an official with USRowing, the national governing body, and FISA, the federation that governs the sport worldwide – a connection to crew racing that began when he rowed competitively in prep school and then as an undergraduate at Dartmouth.
“It’s a rolling fraternity. We all know each other,” Chen says of the roughly 450 people in the world who are certified as international technical officials, including 26 in the United States. “This competition was great because I had never been to Korea before. Most international competitions are in Europe, where I go about three times each year.”
In just the past two years, Chen’s itinerary has included scenic locations a tourist would covet – from Italy to Switzerland to Belgium to London. He also officiated at the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996. “To be called to do the Olympics is the culmination of a career,” Chen says. “You do it once. I did it at the age of 38 so I have had a long period of being a senior statesman.”
Chen’s tasks as a globetrotting rowing umpire – and also at regattas closer to home on rivers such as the Raritan, the Passaic and the Schuylkill – not only require intervening if crews are in danger of interfering with each other during the race, but also include ensuring that boats are the proper weight and all participants are who they say they are. Occasionally, the official is called upon to act as a first responder for an athlete who may be in distress.
Checking identities and enforcing dress codes became a delicate matter for Chen in Chungju when several women’s teams from Iran participated. Chen employed his abilities as a diplomat, and as a mediator.
“They have a requirement for modest dress,” Chen explains. “How do you enforce the rules on uniform attire and check identity without being culturally offensive?”
As in other sports, Chen says, the person who umpires best is the one who stays inconspicuous. And he is proud that he usually succeeds, as he did in Korea. “You’re basically trying to let the rowers do their thing and make sure it’s fair. And if you are not at all noticed, so much the better.”