With all of his school reports suggesting he should spend more time focusing on academic work rather than playing outside, Rob Denton was destined to be heavily involved in sport. That passion led him to become an umpire at several Olympic Games. He spoke to Ben Donaldson…
I was never into badminton growing up. I was a rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer person, like most boys back then. I picked up the game out of the blue when I went to university. Cricket took too long and I needed something where I could fit a match into breaks I had between lectures. I really took to the sport and made the Auckland team. I would often get knocked out of competitions in the early stages, though, and would then be asked to officiate. That’s how I got into umpiring.
Being an official at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona is one of the highlights of my life. It was the first ever Games to include badminton, which is still a part of the event today. I got to umpire one of the first matches played there. It was such a special occasion to be a part of and everything went really well for me. I went on to umpire in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. Prior to that, I had umpired at the Commonwealth Games. I earnt my New Zealand umpire’s badge in 1972 and got my first big call up for the Games in Christchurch two years later. From there, I was part of Brisbane in 1982, Edinburgh in 1986, Auckland in 1990, Victoria, Canada in 1994 and Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
I became the first person in NZ to gain my international umpire’s qualification, which was my ticket to doing it all around the world in places such as Denmark, Singapore and Japan. My most memorable match was the Uber Cup final in Jakarta. It was the singles between Indonesia and China. I never thought I would get to be at that match to be honest, as it was not a guaranteed fixture in a best of seven series. But it became tied at 3-3 and they called on me to umpire the decider. They are so passionate about the sport in Indonesia that the army attended the final to prevent riots. I was about to go on court and I was told I had to wait, as the crowd were trying to bottle the visiting Chinese team. They were hiding in the changing rooms at that stage. To manage, this the referee called for reinforcements. When I was eventually allowed to come to my chair the entire court was lined with soldiers. They stayed in position for the whole match. There was no way I could ever say ‘quiet please’ at that game! When you reach 55 there is a rule that forces you to retire from being an umpire, so I left the chair then. However, in 2000 I became one of five umpire assessors in the world. I attended several major badminton events each year in a different country to assess the officials and retired from that role after 13 years. I was fortunate to receive a Merit Award for services to the sport in 2011.
It was through badminton that I met my wife, Robin. She was playing in the top Auckland team at the time. We were married at St Aidans Church in Remuera in 1973. I remember walking out of the church and all of our guests made a tunnel for us using badminton racquets. That was quite a neat feeling. Robin got to play around the world and even won a bronze at the 1982 Commonwealth Games for NZ in the mixed doubles. Later, we had two daughters, Jen and Chrissy. Jen has gone on to do marketing for Arnotts, Les Mills, Nestle, Charlies and ETA. We get to see plenty of her because we enjoy babysitting the grandkids. We don’t get to see Chrissy so much because she lives in Hong Kong where she works as a dietitian and personal trainer. We raised the kids in Meadowbank and they went to Epsom Girls Grammar School.
I was actually born in Epsom, but moved to Mt Roskill when I was three years old. Dad worked at the Newmarket post office and Mum worked for Holeproof Clothing Company in Royal Oak. My grandfather worked as a tram conductor in Greenlane. Once, when I was three, I tried to follow him to work on my tricycle along Manukau Road, to my parents’ horror. I went to May Road Primary, Mt Roskill Intermediate and Mt Albert Grammar School. It was a strict place. A friend and I skipped military drill once and, unfortunately, were caught by the scariest teacher in the school. The next day he put my head below a table and caned me three times so I would bang my head on it as I tried to straighten up after each stroke. I remember another time we were making cheese toasties on the classroom heater and the teacher found out about it. He didn’t know who did it, though, so he caned every student. He was so tired by the time he reached us at the end of the line we could barely feel it.
I finished Year 13 there and went on to study zoology and geography at Auckland University. I remember Tim Shadbolt getting up on his soap box at uni and preaching against the Vietnam War. After my first year there, I had no idea what I wanted to do so I started at Auckland Teachers College in Epsom, studying physical education. I finished my BA degree part time while teaching at Rangitoto College. It was a busy time in my life. In 1974 Robin and I went to England. She played in the All England Open and I umpired, which was a highlight for both of us. In 1976 I took a job as a P.E. teacher at Tamaki College for a term that ended up rolling on for the next seven years. It was there I met Murray Billington, who I have since been involved with through seniors tennis at Warkworth. After leaving Tamaki, a position happened to come up for head of P.E. at Takapuna Grammar School, which I took on for the next four years. Former sports broadcaster Murray Deaker was the assistant principal at the time. Being a sports teacher, I got on well with him, but unfortunately he left the school not long after missing out on the principal’s job. We were one of the first schools to compete in triathlons during my time, producing competitors like Sue Clark. Other students I taught there were Black Cap Danny Morrison and, ironically, North Harbour rugby and Warkworth tennis player Warren Burton.
In keeping with sport and schools I moved into a position with the Hillary Commission. I worked as a coordinator to help schools and clubs across the Auckland region improve their coaching and resources. It was a real eye-opener going into the different schools because you saw how much they differed across Auckland. After two years I was keen to get away from teaching. I found myself in a bit of a wilderness not knowing what I wanted to do. That saw me get into the badminton scene as director of coaching for Auckland Badminton, working with the top team and clubs for seven years. I also helped the NZ coach to produce a manual for junior players that was distributed throughout the country. In 1999 I was back into school as sports-coordinator and physical education head of department at Selwyn College. In 2008, I retired from full time work and Robin and I moved up to our home in Snells Beach. I have a sister living in Wellsford who has worked for the ASB there for 35 years. I’ve been involved with seniors tennis as co-captain for Lower North for the past five years and play golf in Warkworth. I also keep myself busy teaching part-time at Mahurangi College. It’s a great school with the friendliest students and staff I’ve ever worked with.