Meet Noreen Landis-Tyson, the first woman to oversee Olympic track racing
When Noreen Landis-Tyson took the examination to become a UCI-certified international track commissaire in 1997, she received the second highest score in the class of 45 aspiring officiants. To this day, Landis-Tyson doesn’t know who beat her, and although she’d love to know, the answer hardly matters in light of her officiating assignment this week.
At the World Championships in Berlin, which starts Wednesday, Landis-Tyson will become the first woman to serve as head commissaire. In August, she becomes the first woman to hold that position at the summer Olympic Games.
What is entailed in this assignment? The head commissaire oversees the panel of referees who enforce the UCI rules throughout the five-day competition, to ensure that fair play is observed.
“The president really manages the commissaires panel and really is the interface between the managers and the commissaires and the commissaires and the UCI,” Landis-Tyson told VeloNews.
It’s not an easy job, and it’s one that Landis-Tyson has been training for since her career began as a referee. She started officiating cycling events in the early 1980’s, shortly after she and her husband moved to Colorado Springs for his coaching job. Landis-Tyson became well-versed in working road events, so when the velodrome in Colorado Springs opened in 1983, she “got called upon and thrown into the deep end.”
“I was one of the few licensed officials in Colorado Springs,” Landis-Tyson said. “And even though I knew as much about track as the next person, I immediately started to officiate events.”
It didn’t take long for Landis-Tyson to almost completely forget about officiating road cycling. She developed a love for track and shifted her focus to the discipline. After over a decade of officiating in the U.S., Landis-Tyson had the opportunity to travel to Ottawa for the UCI’s international commissaire certification course. It was the first time that the governing body allowed commissaire’s to specialize in one event, and rather than sit for both the road and track examinations, Landis-Tyson decided to forgo the road for the velodrome. If being a female track officiant domestically had already made her a pioneer of sorts, her decision to specialize in track at the international level was a whole new type of trail-blazing.
Andrew McCord, a fellow UCI commissaire and longtime friend of Landis-Tyson, accompanied her on the trip to Ottawa and recalls her decision as out of the ordinary at the time.
She made the decision that she was concentrating on track because that was what she enjoyed,” he recalled. “And, she was very good at it.”
McCord credits Landis-Tyson as a mentor and has worked dozens of events with her. At this year’s World Cup in Milton, Ontario, McCord worked as the race judge while Landis-Tyson served as the president. He describes their relationship while officiating as “very comfortable” and said there was a mutual respect for each other’s calls on the track, even if one had to question the other.
While Landis-Tyson was familiar with the role of president through her appointment as such at some international events, before 2019, she had never acted as the lead officiant at a World Cup or World Championship. It’s not that she wasn’t qualified; she was just simply too good at another vital job, the track secretary.
“The secretary is involved with putting out all the paperwork, starting lists and results” Landis-Tyson said. “I loved that position and was really good at it.”
Like each position on the panel, the secretary is integral to running a track event. But Tyson-Landis’ prowess in the role had an unintended consequence: it pigeonholed her. Although being such a capable Secretary gave her opportunities to travel around the world, eventually she wanted to do something different.
“So, I started doing some behind-the-scenes lobbying around that,” she said.
Then, last year, Landis-Tyson received two assignments that were outside of the norm for her: she was appointed Starter at the Milton World Cup and president at Berlin.
“I was flabbergasted,” she said.
Her shock was well-founded: Landis-Tyson was 20 years into her UCI officiating career before being appointed to one of the lead roles at a World Cup. Whether or not her gender played a part in the assignments she had received up until that point was a question she didn’t know the answer to, yet she could only assume it had something to do with it.
“There was definitely some frustration along the way,” she said.
Landis-Tyson recalls having an ‘aha moment’ when officiating in South America a dozen years ago. It was there, she said, that she witnessed women commissaires who wanted to move up in their officiating careers but were stuck in the roles given to them by their male colleagues. Part of the problem, Landis-Tyson recalled, was that these women didn’t have any role models to show them what might be possible.
“They’d never seen it on an international level,” she said.
When Landis-Tyson spoke to UCI officials about her position, she suggested that the experience of the female South American commissaires be a learning opportunity for the governing body. She pressed the governing body to consider things like how women were portrayed in UCI publications and why a woman had never been given the gun as a race starter. According to Landis-Tyson, the UCI listened and agreed with many of her points. Landis-Tyson reflected later that, while she initially went to the organization on behalf of women commissaires in general, she never thought that the one to benefit the most might be her.
Both Landis-Tyson and Andy McCord agree that the UCI has made an increased push to promote women throughout the sport, including in officiating. While Landis-Tyson’s upcoming appointments to World’s and the Olympics might be related to this effort, she also believes that her decades of service as a track commissaire have something to do with it. At a commissaire’s meeting at the UCI headquarters last October, the announcement was made, to a room filled primarily with male counterparts, that Landis-Tyson would be the first woman appointed as PCP at the Olympics. She was honored, she said, but hoped it was because she was a good commissaire, not just because she was a woman.
“I was assured it was that I’m a good commissaire and I’m a woman,” she said.