By Jonathan Gault
July 26, 2021
Five minutes before the biggest race of her life, Jenny Simpson had a problem.
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One by one, the other 11 finalists had risen from their chairs in the bowels of the Estádio Nilton Santos to perform their last drills and strideouts before the women’s 1500-meter final at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. But Simpson had not been given permission to do the same because she was missing her front bib. So she was forced to sit in a small “room” — essentially 12 folding chairs surrounded by temporary partitions in a tunnel by the finish line — where she tried to stay as calm possible before the race she had spent her entire life dreaming about.
“[There were] three people that were staff literally sprinting up and down the stadium trying to find a printer to print off my bib number,” Simpson says. “I remember sitting just there thinking, This is not your problem, you need to focus on the final. Don’t stress.”
The problem was not entirely of Simpson’s making. You may recall there were some issues with the bibs at the 2016 Olympics. Typically, middle distance runners are assigned a new one between rounds at a major championship — as Simpson was between the prelims and semifinals in Rio. But after discarding her bib following her semi, Simpson had not been offered a new one before the final. Thus, chaos.
Finally, two women came sprinting down the hallway carrying four safety pins and a bib with the letters SIMPSON printed in simple black typeface. Simpson stood, and suddenly she was a Formula One car in the middle of a pit stop, four volunteers materializing around her to pin the bib to her singlet. Within 30 seconds, Simpson was jogging onto the track for the Olympic final. Within 10 minutes, she had crossed the finish line in third place, becoming the first American woman to earn an Olympic 1500m medal.
From your living room, a well-run track meet appears seamless. You watch a race, listen to Lewis Johnson interview the winner, head to the fridge for a beer during the commercial, and upon your return, another set of athletes are on the start line, ready to go.
In reality, a track meet is more like sailing in a weather-beaten boat. All may appear calm up top, but that’s only because of the crew below deck plugging holes the second they emerge.
Run on the circuit long enough, and chances are you’ll find eventually yourself in a situation like Simpson’s. US Olympian Tim Broe once showed up to a race in Oslo without any spikes. Wallace Spearmon fell asleep on a massage table minutes before a USATF final. Weather delays. False starts. Extended victory laps. There are many obstacles to adhering to the sacred text of meet management: the TV schedule.
There is a method to handle such madness. It is known as the call room, and the purpose of the men and women who work in it is to ensure every meet runs as smoothly as possible. To ensure Jenny Simpson doesn’t miss the Olympic final because she’s missing her bib.
Professional track meets begin the same way as high school and college meets do: every athlete checks in by giving their name to a clerk. The athletes are given a “report back” time — a deadline by which they must enter the call room, which can range between 10 minutes before their event to an hour or more, depending on the meet, location of the call room, and their event (field eventers typically enter the call room earlier because they need extra time for warmup attempts after being taken to the competition area).
Once an athlete reports back, the call room process begins in earnest. Only athletes and clerks are allowed inside the call room. It is an isolating experience.
“In the warmup area, you’re there, you’re with your coach, you’re with your team of people,” says sprinter Richard Thompson, the 2008 Olympic 100m silver medalist for Trinidad & Tobago. “But when you go into that call room, you’re on your own.”
“It kind of feels like the separation from your allies into the competitive realm,” says Simpson.
Once in the call room, athletes must surrender themselves to the mercy of the meet clerks. They tell the athletes what to wear (bib and hip numbers in the correct places), what not to wear (uniforms and shoes are checked for compliance with logo and spike design rules), and where to go.
“You’re responsible to stay on TV’s time schedule and you’re responsible to get those athletes out of there and where they should be, when they should be there,” says Karen Krsak, a call room official for over 25 years who has worked the World Indoor Championships, World Junior Championships, and multiple Olympic Trials.
Electronics are banned in the call room. Most athletes try to bring in as few items as possible — a snack, a drink, perhaps a small foam roller.
The call room itself is an amorphous concept. It can consist of one room or several — or sometimes none at all.
“When I first came to the University of Oregon in 1963, they called it the clerk’s circle,” says Wade Bell, a 1968 Olympian turned clerk who has worked the call room at Hayward Field for over five decades. “At Hayward Field, they’d take four metal fence posts, drove them into the ground, put ribbons around them, put benches inside. You’d walk in there, a guy with a clipboard would check you in and and send you to the start line.”
A call room need not even be in the same building as the track, though the vast majority of them are. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, the warmup track was located at a separate stadium, so the call room for that meet included a bus ride in the middle of it.
“That was the most silent bus ride I’ve ever been on,” says New Zealand’s Nick Willis, who won the men’s 1500 at that meet. “Me and [Craig] Mottram were the two rivals, and then everyone else was watching us. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking.”
The call room at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki produced horror stories. The 20-minute walk from the warmup track to the stadium included climbing three flights of stairs to cross an overpass, made worse by the unseasonably cold, wet weather that plagued the meet. Finalists were afforded golf carts to accelerate the journey, but that wasn’t much help to Spearmon, who had to run three rounds of prelims in the 200 meters.
“That definitely for me stands out as one of the worst,” Spearmon says.
After enduring call rooms as an 800-meter runner at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg and 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Wade Bell thought there had to be a better way. He saw officials who seemed more interested in being close to the action rather than doing everything they could to allow the athletes to perform at their best.
“You warmed up and then they marched you in a room and they made us sit in a chair for 30 minutes before we went out onto the track,” Bell says. “And I said, this is no way to enhance a performance.”
Bell’s coach at Oregon, Bill Bowerman, taught him that if he received a benefit from something, he ought to give back to it. An NCAA champion at 880 yards and former American record holder at 1000 meters, Bell took Bowerman’s lesson to heart. He volunteered as a clerk at Hayward Field, feeling he could use his experience as a top athlete to make sure the call room process was not a hindrance to athletic performance. Still going strong at 76, Bell has clerked at all seven Olympic Trials held in Eugene.
Many clerks are former athletes in it for the same reason as Bell: they want to pay it forward. Bell’s longtime colleague Jenifer Pleus, the chief clerk at the Prefontaine Classic, was the first woman to letter for four years in cross country and track at Oregon and later competed at the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials. Terri Tutt, the head clerk at the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Trials, was a state champion in the mile relay in Ohio in the 1970s and the memory sticks with her, almost half a century later.
“It changed my life as a 14-year-old girl,” Tutt says. “It instilled something in you, like, you can do this — a lot of confidence, self-esteem. I just want, even if it’s junior high level in Ohio, I want those kids to have the best opportunity to succeed.”
That’s not to say every call room is perfect. You still get the occasional overzealous clerk.
“The most frustrating experiences with call rooms often happen in Great Britain,” Willis says. “Whoever is given the authority for the officials, they hold the rules to the nth degree…I remember at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 in Glasgow, there’s this beautiful long straightaway and they wouldn’t even let us do strides on it because the officials were worried they were going to get told off by a higher official if they break protocol.”
A degree of empathy is required. A clerk, ideally, should try to make everything as smooth as possible for the athletes. But they are also tasked with getting all of the athletes to the start line at a specific time. Sometimes, clerks are so worried about the latter, they forget about the former.
Eventually, most veteran athletes come to understand the clerks are there to work for them. In 2015, after checking in for the 200 final at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Spearmon took a nap on one of the massage tables in the warmup area. This was not uncommon — in 2007, Spearmon took a snooze ahead of a meet in Sheffield, England, and required a slap across the face from Usain Bolt to make it to the call room in time (Spearmon went on to beat Bolt and win the race in 20.08).
Eight years later, Spearmon was in danger of missing his race again when Krsak realized the men’s 200 was an athlete short. She hustled out to the warmup area, shook Spearmon awake, and a few minutes later, he had made his fifth and final World Championship team.
“I’ve always had a special place in my heart for her, because she saved my butt,” Spearmon says.
(Not everyone is as fortunate — a few years ago, a women’s 800 runner did sleep through her race at the Pre Classic, though Pleus says she can’t remember the athlete’s name).
The old Hayward Field earned high marks not only for its officials, but for its final staging area under the West Grandstand. Spacious and covered, it featured a seven-lane, 75-meter track with plenty of room for strides, a cluster of porta potties at the far end, and a quick walk to the actual track.
“You’ve got a clerk, you’ve got a straightaway to stride out on, and you’ve got a porta potty,” says Nick Symmonds, who won five of his six US 800-meter titles at Hayward Field. “That’s the perfect setup for a call room.”
(The new Hayward Field features a similar setup, with the call room making use of the six-lane track that runs under the stands along the home straight).
The best clerks are like referees — if no one remembers them after the meet, it means they did a good job. But now that he’s retired, John Capel, the 2003 world champion at 200 and now a coach at Springstead High School in Florida, believes clerks deserve more respect for a role doesn’t pay much — when it pays at all.
“Even though we were in such high-pressure situations, the people they had running the call room really made it a good atmosphere for us,” Capel says. “I would love to tell those people that I really appreciated what they did.”
In track & field, there are two types of meets: the major championships — Worlds and the Olympics — and everything else. An athlete’s first race on the Diamond League circuit can bring nerves. There is prize money to be won. But if you fail, there is always another opportunity around the corner.
“A Diamond League, people are just having fun, for the most part,” Thompson says. “People are a lot more relaxed.”
A major championship is different. That is where legacies are forged and careers defined. Fail, and you must wait a year — or four, in the case of the Olympics — for a shot at redemption. If you’re lucky enough to get one.
“Everyone knows that this is it,” Capel says.
Even the most caring, attentive clerks can do nothing to combat the stress waves flooding the atmosphere. It is a unique dynamic. Imagine readying yourself to play the Super Bowl — and having to share the locker room with the opposing team.
“You get 12 people in a 1500 final, and you got six chairs on one side and about six feet apart, and you have another six chairs and you’re just staring at the guy across from you,” says three-time Canadian Olympian Kevin Sullivan. “You can’t escape at all. That’s almost the worst part. You have no control in that situation. You’re just stuck with your emotions and the 11 other competitors.”
Entering a championship call room is an attack on the senses. Usually housed on the lower levels of a massive stadium, natural light is almost nonexistent. The sounds only serve to build the anxiety. The muffled roar of the crowd above. The clack of metal spikes on concrete. The last name of every athlete in a race, shouted one after another as officials check them in.
The nostrils face the most violent assault.
“It stinks,” says Symmonds. “Everybody’s sweating, everybody’s wearing gear that may have been used in multiple races already. There’s a real stench of BO. There’s a smell of Bengay in the air. It’s kind of musty. You don’t want to be in a call room a long time. The goal is to be in the call room as little as possible.”
All major championships utilize multi-step call rooms, with a clerk assigned to guide each heat through the underground maze. In the first call room, an official will check the athletes’ uniforms and equipment.
The second call room is where athletes prepare for competition, stripping down to their racing gear with officials checking their bibs are properly applied. Often, but not always, there is a track surface for athletes to get in strides. From there, athletes are either taken to a third call room or directly to the track for their race.
Depending on the meet, athletes can spend as much as 50 and as little as 30 minutes in a championship call room. The experienced ones build this process into their routine, finishing the first half of their warmup before entering the call room and using the call room itself for drills that don’t require a lot of space. For Willis, that’s dynamic stretches. For Evan Jager, it’s standing leg drills, using either a hurdle or a chair. For Simpson and Symmonds, it’s A-skips and B-skips.
Those drills do more than just help athletes stay warm on a cool European night.
“Part of that is just to keep yourself busy, so you don’t have time to think,” Willis says. “You want to just be distracted by your routine.”
Routine can be good — just don’t be married to it. The smallest final call room he was ever in, Willis says, was directly before the 2016 Olympic final — roughly 10 x 20 feet, barely enough space to jog in place. Because of that, most finalists only had time for one stride each in the final 25 minutes before the gun fired — and that came once they were on the track itself. That’s one reason, Willis suspects, why the early pace was so slow in that race.
“You really have to be flexible with what you’re used to doing,” Jager says. “If it’s not possible, doing my normal routine, I don’t let that bother me.”
That can be tough, however. Usain Bolt, famously, ended his career crumpled on the track at the 2017 Worlds in London, pulling up with a hamstring injury halfway through the anchor leg of the 4×100-meter relay. After the race, Bolt’s Jamaican teammates complained they had been forced to wait too long in the call room after multiple medal ceremonies delayed the start of the event.
Preparing one’s body for a championship final is the easy part. There is also the mental aspect of the call room — which can be complicated, significantly, by whom you share the call room with. Mostly, call rooms are quiet, cordial affairs. But trash talk can and does happen.
“The call room is very important,” Thompson says. “It’s where, I believe, races can be won or lost…If you don’t manage that time properly, it’s very easy to be thrown off of your gameplan.”
Mind games range from the passive-aggressive — moving someone’s starting blocks or hiding someone’s bag — to the confrontational.
John Capel was someone you didn’t want to see on the start list in a final. A former wide receiver at the University of Florida, Capel was one of the world’s top sprinters in the early 2000s and brought an inimitable swagger to big races.
“I approached the call room like I approached a football game,” Capel says. “I want to embarrass you.”
Capel’s approach didn’t win him many friends, but he believed it could work. Because it worked on him.
Ahead of the 2000 Olympic 200m final in Sydney, Capel, then 21, overheard two of his competitors discussing his chances.
“I hear Ato Boldon tell Obadele Thompson, ‘Hey man, I gotta find a way to break this young boy,’” Capel says.
Capel already hated Boldon, Maurice Greene, and the other guys in coach John Smith‘s HSI training group — a few weeks earlier, Capel and Greene had almost got in a fight following a race in Berlin. Boldon’s comment was enough to set him off.
“I was like, Young boy?” Capel says. “Who the —- you think you’re talking to? I start kicking over chairs and I completely lost focus on what I was supposed to do out on the track.”
Capel was so distracted he forgot to finish his warmup in the call room, and it carried over to the race itself. Capel’s reaction time for the final was a glacial .348 of a second — twice as slow as Boldon’s .163 — contributing to his last-place finish. Capel thinks he would have been faster out of the blocks had Boldon’s comment not still been rattling around his head.
After Sydney, Capel decided to pay it forward. Fellow American Shawn Crawford was a frequent target. Capel would roll up to the call room and ask Crawford whether he was planning finishing second or third. In 2003, Capel learned Crawford’s contract was expiring at the end of the year and taunted him about it before a meet in Paris.
“Since your contract up, I’m gonna make sure they don’t give you no money!” Capel told him.
Two years later, Capel was in rare form at the World Championships in Helsinki. In the prelims, Capel faced Bolt, then a hotshot 18-year-old phenom. Bolt had blown him out two weeks earlier in London, and Capel wanted revenge.
“He used to wear this huge necklace with a cross on it,” Capel says. “I walked up beside him, right before we’re ready to go out for the first round, and I’m like, ‘Hey Bolt, I’m gonna make you spit that necklace out on the curve.’”
And that is exactly what happened. As they rounded the curve, Bolt, running with the necklace in his mouth, was trying to keep up with Capel, who stole a glance at his rival.
“He’s taking this deep breath, and spits the necklace out of his mouth,” Capel says. “In my heart I’m laughing. I just thought that was the funnest thing I had ever done.”
As he aged, Bolt became unflappable in the call room. That carefree guy you see clowning around on the start line of major finals? Bolt is like that in the call room as well. Prior to the 100m semifinals at the 2008 Olympics, American Walter Dix tried talking trash to the Jamaican, telling him the world record he had set earlier that summer didn’t count for anything; he needed to prove himself again at the Olympics. Bolt simply smiled, ran off to do a buildup, and won their semi easily. Two hours later, he broke his own world record.
One of Bolt’s best friends on the circuit was Spearmon, and their relationship began at those 2005 Worlds in Helsinki.
“Bolt is the same way that I am [before races],” Spearmon says. “So we just kind of kicked it off. We went in and were joking and playing and just staying relaxed.”
That is, until Spearmon ran into John Capel. Though Capel entered Helsinki as the reigning world champion, he felt neglected by his sponsor, adidas.
“They brought me in and told me, ‘Well John, we’ll keep you on as an athlete, but we’re not going to give you as much money,’” Capel says. “But then they gave Tyson Gay a huge nice contract.”
That placed Gay — and his former Arkansas teammate, Spearmon, who had signed with Nike — firmly in Capel’s crosshairs heading into Worlds.
“I was like, these boys ain’t proven, they ain’t won no championships,” Capel says. “I don’t understand why y’all don’t want to give me money and y’all want to give them money. But I was like, I tell you what. I’ma kick both of their butts when we get to World Championships.”
Capel recruited a couple of older sprinters and proceeded to haze the rookies in Helsinki. First, he demanded Spearmon and Gay fetch drinks for the table at a team meal. That led to a reprimand from a Team USA coach, which spilled over into the press and prevented Capel from executing his second idea.
“I was going to shave their heads bald,” Capel says. “That was the goal, but we couldn’t get them to come in the room. They wouldn’t go anywhere with us.”
But Spearmon could not avoid Capel in the call room before the final, where Capel did everything he could to get under his skin. Trash talk. Running straight at him during strides. Bumping into him as he walked by. In the final, Spearmon, who ran the two fastest times on the year, could only manage second behind Justin Gatlin (Capel was 3rd and Gay 4th as the US completed a historic 1-2-3-4 sweep).
“Justin Gatlin won’t agree with it, but there’s no way he should have won that race,” Spearmon says. “But at the end of the day, I was so out of my game that we came off the turn, I didn’t even finish like myself. [Gatlin] was close enough that I should have caught him and I was focused on the people behind me instead of him in front of me.”
Capel may have lost the head-to-head with Spearmon, but the result was proof. His bravado, the mind games he played with his competitors? It worked.
“That’s what the call room is for, is to see who can focus on what they have to do,” Capel says. “If can you focus, you can win. If you can’t then you’re definitely going to get your but whupped.”
Not all nerves are the product of mind games, however. Sometimes, the enormity of the moment can weigh on an athlete.
Spearmon recalls a scene ahead of the 4 x 100m relay final at the 2007 Worlds in Osaka. Due to a number of injuries, Leroy Dixon, who had finished only sixth at USAs and was making his global championship debut, had been drafted into the team to run the anchor leg. In the call room, he asked if the team could find somebody to take his place — he was too nervous. Veteran Doc Patton, running the opening leg, tried to calm Dixon down, to no avail.
“‘He’s like dude, you got the easiest job in the world. I’m going first, Wallace is going second, and [newly-crowned world champion] Tyson [Gay] is going third. All you have to do is get the stick and you can jog!’” Spearmon says.
But Patton’s pep talk didn’t work. It required a breach of protocol — Dixon’s coach entering the call room — to steady Dixon’s nerves. (The US, with Dixon on anchor, won the gold.)
A year later, Patton decided to intervene in the call room again before one of the most famous races in the sport’s history. It was the Olympic 100-meter final in Beijing, and before the race, Patton asked the rest of the finalists if he could say a prayer. The eight of them huddled up as Patton prayed for them to make it through the race healthy and run to the best of their ability.
Thompson, who earned the silver behind Bolt’s unforgettable world record that night, still treasures the memory.
“It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in a call room,” Thompson says. “Because obviously, when people pray, it’s a sign of togetherness, which is completely the opposite of the vibe you want to give off as an athlete in a call room. Usually, you want to, intentionally or unintentionally, intimidate your opponent…After that, I felt a sense of calmness.”
One topic that’s usually off-limits in call rooms is tactics. The last thing most athletes want to do before a big race is discuss their strategy with their opponents. Even for those bold enough to do so, it may fall on deaf ears. Ahead of the 2000 Olympic 1500 final, everyone expected Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj to take the race out hard, as he had done to win the World Championship the year before. As they were lining up to be led onto the track, El Guerrouj stood next to Kevin Sullivan.
“He looks and me and is like, ‘Kevin, first 100 meters, no shoving,’” Sullivan says. “It was very clear what his intention was…I think I just kind smiled in the moment. But in the back of your mind, you’re like, It’s the Olympic final. If I need to give you an elbow, to get my position, it doesn’t matter that you’re the world record holder.”
“I was just kind of doing my own thing and I look over and some guy’s just, like, naked. And I’m like, Oh all right. He just does not care.”
So recalls Evan Jager of his first experience with nudity in the call room. It would not be his last. Call room air is filled with nerves, expectation, and a hint of desperation, which leaves very little room for shame. Do what you need to do to get ready for the race — which, in Jager’s example above, meant one of his opponents changing into racing shorts in the middle of the call room. Usually, athletes have access to a bathroom while in the call room. But sometimes they cut it too close. Desperation wins out over shame.
“[At the 2016 Olympics] in Rio, we were brought out onto the track before the race,” Jager says. “Middle of the back straight, before getting called up to the start line, [one athlete] just kneeled down and whipped it out of his shorts and peed on the side of the track right before the start of the race. It was definitely not hidden. At all. I was like, Damn, that is ballsy.”
All sorts of craziness can unfold in the minutes before a race. Simpson has seen athletes get so nervous, they throw up in the call room. Once, in Oslo, three-time US 5,000 champion Tim Broe realized he had left his spikes in his hotel room. He went through the entire call room process, debating whether he should race in trainers or barefoot, before spotting Willis, his training partner, in the stands. Willis’ feet were a size larger than Broe’s, but it didn’t matter at that point.
“I say, ‘Throw me your fucking spikes!’” Broe says. “And I grabbed some athletic tape and I wrapped it as tight as I can around my feet, kind of around my midfoot, you know, to make it snug.”
Broe’s feet were a bloodied mess by the end of the race…but he also ran his lifetime best, 13:11 for 5,000 meters.
Fights are rare in the call room, but there have been a number of near-fights.
Willis recalls one of his first races on the pro circuit in Rome, in the summer of 2004. Just 21 years old, a bright-eyed Willis was so happy just to be around athletes like Reyes Estevez and El Guerrouj that he asked them to sign his spikes before the race. Then, less than 10 minutes before the gun, Willis says, a screaming match broke out in the call room.
“There’s not a fight going on, but Kevin Sullivan is trying to restrain Bernard Lagat and people are trying to hold Lagat back from attacking Rashid Ramzi,” Willis says. “Lagat was beside himself, screaming, ‘He shouldn’t be allowed to race!’”
What, exactly the Bahraini Ramzi had done remains the subject of some debate (Lagat did not respond to an interview request for this story). But it involved some suspicious behavior in the bathroom area. The way Sullivan remembers it, “one of the other Kenyans was walking in and saw [Ramzi] either dump a vial or a syringe, something that was super suspicious.” Once Lagat learned of this, he erupted.
Ramzi went on to win the race, barging past Lagat in the home straight. Four years later, Ramzi tested positive for an advanced form of EPO at the 2008 Olympics and was banned for two years.
The lesson, Willis has learned throughout his lengthy professional career, is to be prepared for anything. Whether there’s an incident like what happened in Rome (Willis ran a four-second pb in that race) or the cramped close quarters of the Rio call room (Willis earned his second Olympic medal that night), you have to adapt to the circumstances presented to you.
And that nervous energy that reverberates in call rooms around the world? It’s something to be embraced, not feared.
“I get worried if I’m not nervous, because that’s the extra propulsion,” Willis says. “It gives you the adrenaline and the extra impetus that make it different than just a normal training workout.”
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