Beyond the athletes, the Olympic Games are the highest point in the careers of those who wear striped shirts and hold a whistle during games. For third-year doctor of education student Frances (Frankie) Billingsley, it took 21 years of hard work to make the show.
Billingsley was one of thirteen softball umpires selected from around the world to participate in the recent Tokyo Olympics.
“I started to cry,” Billingsley said. “I was overwhelmed with so many emotions. For officials, we go through the process of doing our craft and being evaluated, and then at some point we’re told we’re good enough to go.”
In 2016, the World Softball Baseball Confederation learned softball was being included in the 2020 Olympics.
Over the next four years since, a series of events were held to evaluate and rank umpires and determine who would qualify for the Games.
When the Olympic Games were postponed after the global pandemic hit in 2020, the joy of being selected for the Games turned into a huge disappointment, Billingsley said. The uncertainty of whether the Olympics would even take place loomed over both athletes and officials.
“I prayed with every fibre of my being that it wouldn’t be cancelled,” she said. “It was a roller coaster for the last year and a bit.”
While there was doubt whether the Olympic Games would take place in 2021, Billingsley continued to prepare physically and mentally for the competition.
She had monthly Zoom calls with her Olympic crew, which helped them bond as an officiating team, she said. She also enrolled in a six-week mental toughness course that was adapted for officials.
Billingsley also developed her physical fitness routine, doing squats with weights in each hand to prepare working behind home plate. She said home plate umpires squat 300 times a game. In addition, she completed interval training using her treadmill.
Once in Tokyo, it was a unique experience for participants. Playing without any fans in the stands was the biggest change from previous Olympics.
Games like no other
Although softball games took place in an empty 44,000-seat stadium, Billingsley said the experience was still spectacular because of the intensity of how the athletes played.
“You could tell from the first pitch that there were Olympic medals on the line – it was awesome,” she said.
Following COVID-19 safety protocols were also a change for athletes and officials. While on the diamond, players and coaches didn’t have to wear a mask, but they wore a mask if they talked to the umpires as well as during the plate conference before each game, she said.
The Olympic Games also made Billingsley a TikTok star.
During the second day of the Olympics, she was working as the home plate umpire when a foul tip hit her on the head.
“I didn’t want to finish the game unless I knew I could perform because I didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the game, but I was glad I could finish,” she said.
To help Billingsley recover, a player poured water down her back, causing a huge smile on her face because it jolted her system.
Someone in Australia created a TikTok video that included Japanese and Mexican players clapping when Billingsley regained her composure to finish the game. At the end of the video, there was wording that said this is what the Olympic spirit is like. The video went viral.
“I got a tear in my eye because I thought it was cool that someone turned this single event in a game into a really heartwarming message,” she said.
The Tokyo Olympics was the first time since Beijing in 2008 that softball was back in the Games, but it may also be the last – making the experience even more special for Billingsley. With the decision to exclude softball in the 2024 Paris Olympics, and a still uncertain fate in all future Olympics, hundreds – even thousands – of umpires may never get the chance to participate, Billingsley said.
“The fact that it’s not one of the standard sports that’s in every time, makes it even more special because the selection process is that much more competitive,” she said. “I was honoured to be selected and it was a privilege to go.”