By Martin Cleary
For more than 40 years, Ottawa’s Barb McKay stood back and watched mighty and muscular athletes of all shapes and sizes throw metal balls, discs and sticks into the air and see them land on well manicured sectors.
As a track and field official for the throwing disciplines, she was responsible for knowing the rule book backwards and forwards.
She intently oversaw hundreds of shot put, discus and javelin competitions, guided incoming high school student-athletes, and politely answered the questions of high-performance international athletes at major Games.
But like the athletes under her jurisdiction, McKay had to be sharp in her role and in the game with every throw from the circle, the run-up area or wherever.
Back when the Coliseum building was a sports venue at Lansdowne Park, indoor track and field competitions were regularly staged inside the dull and incomplete structure. On one weekend, there was a meet for athletes with disabilities.
“I remember the day Willie (McKay, Barb’s husband) and I saved her from a serious injury,” recalled Barclay Frost of Munster, ON., a level-5 judge and referee in horizontal and vertical jumps with more than 55 years of officiating experience.
“We were doing a meet indoors at the Coliseum. Barb was doing the shot put for the athletes who were blind. They would throw the shot, but couldn’t see where it was going.
“An athlete threw it the wrong way. I was standing beside Barb and Willie was on the other side. I reached in front and caught the shot. It would have her hit her in the chest. It was really scary. Thankfully, it was one of the light (weight) shots.”
McKay, who had seen thousands of identified flying objects in her day delivered by thousands of trusted throwers, passed away July 7. She was 92. She was married 49 years to Willie, who died in 2000.
The McKays were regular fixtures on the national track and field scene from the 1950s to the 1990s, sometimes travelling to meets in their camper. Their specialty was officiating the throwing events and making sure the competition was staged in a proper and fair manner so the athletes could enjoy the experience and get a certified result.
That incident at the Coliseum prompted Willie to develop a safety feature, when he officiated the javelin. When an athlete released the javelin, Willie would sound a horn to indicate the long, sharp implement was flying through the air. He used it at local, provincial and national meets, but it was never accepted at the international level.
Track and field took the McKays throughout Canada as they were an athletics tag-team at a full variety of meets. Barb’s resume included the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, where she was the shot-put official and worked on the team for the men’s marathon. She also was assigned to officiate at the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton and was involved with the Canada Summer Games.
During the Ottawa Citizen Indoor Games/Winternationals, Barb would be on the floor inside the oval overseeing the shot put competition. When the Canadian senior or junior championships were staged at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility, Barb would be there with Willie to stage throws competitions, share their vast rules knowledge and get a free box lunch.
“She was a great official,” continued Frost, who added the athletes often considered the five-foot, two-inch official as a mother figure. “You didn’t want to be nasty to her.
“She wasn’t afraid to make a call. She was knowledgeable and knew how to deal with the athletes.”
No matter the weather or the level of competition, Barb enjoyed being in the track and field environment.
“You could tell by the smile on her face. She loved what she was doing,” Frost added. “When they stayed in (university) residence (during meets), she was in her element. She loved to talk to people.
“They had a great marriage. She never said why she did it (officiating). They loved what they did. I never saw her upset. I’d like to clone her. She did her job and was happy.
“She was a very good official … efficient. She was well liked and always had a big smile. She had a way about her, which was great for being an official. She was a people person and athletes respected her. She had a great personality.”
In 1984, Athletics Canada introduced its Officials’ Wall of Honour to recognize the work of its dedicated volunteers. Willie McKay was the first and only inductee that year.
“Willie may have got the accolade, but Barb was the best supporting actor. She was always there with him,” Frost said.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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