On most days, Mark Geiger is a math whiz, teaching students everything from basic mathematics to calculus. But these days look a little bit different as he walks out of a tunnel and onto a field with Olympic soccer teams as a professional referee.
“It is an unreal feeling hearing the anthem playing as we enter the field with thousands of people cheering on their teams,” Geiger, formerly the girl’s assistant varsity soccer coach, said in an email.
Geiger never thought what used to be just a hobby would get him to the Olympics. It was almost dreamlike when he walked out of the tunnel with the men’s teams from Spain and Japan following, taking the field and grabbing the ball off of a podium.
Geiger became a referee when he was 13 in 1988 to make a little extra cash, he said. After playing soccer through high school, he began to focus on refereeing when he was 20.
He was invited to New Jersey youth state cup tournaments and regional tournaments where there are assessors and mentors that help amateur referees improve.
“I was very lucky in this respect to have had the opportunity to test my limits and get stronger as a referee,” he said.
In 2003, Geiger obtained his National Referee badge and in 2004, he began refereeing games in Major League Soccer. In 2008, he was added to the US Soccer’s International Panel of Referees, making him eligible to work international games, including the Olympics. Last year, he was a referee at the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) U-20 World Cup.
Geiger is the primary referee on his team along with two assistants — Mark Sean Hurd from Jacksonville, Fla., and Joseph Fletcher from St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. There are 16 teams of referees for the men’s soccer event and 12 for women’s.
A few weeks prior to leaving for London, Geiger took a fitness test — a series of 40-meter sprints and another series of 150-meter runs with a short rest in between each sprint.
Once Geiger arrived in London on July 19, tactical and practical training began. There were five days of field and classroom training before the matches started, he said.
The referees train on the soccer fields daily with a warm-up and a physical workout. Then, they work with youth soccer teams that present each referee with different match scenarios.
“The referees must treat the situation as if it is a real match and make the proper decision,” he said.
So far, Geiger has been the referee for match day one between Spain and Japan in Glasgow, Scotland and the fourth official for match day two between Great Britain and United Arab Emirates in London and match day three between Brazil and New Zealand in Newcastle, England.
He was recently notified that he would be the referee for the quarterfinal match between Japan and Egypt on Saturday in Manchester, England. The game will be played at 7 a.m. EST.
“Reffing games at this level is very rewarding, but is very demanding as well,” Geiger said. “We are each representing our countries and our confederation every time we step out onto the field. That is a wonderful feeling and a huge honor.”
But, being a referee at such a high level presents its challenges both physically and mentally, he said. Each country plays by the same rules.
“However, each team plays a different style or will have a different tactical approach to the game. We need to be aware of these differences in order to be best prepared for each individual match,” he said.
As a referee, Geiger was able to attend the opening ceremonies.
“The number of people involved in putting such an event together is incredible and attending the show itself is indescribable,” he said.
Geiger’s credential does not get him into other Olympic events, although much of his free time is spent watching the soccer games of the teams he is going to officiate.
Geiger is staying within walking distance of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye, he said.
“Being in London during the games has been an experience of a lifetime. London is a wonderful city,” he said. “The people are very excited to have the Olympics in their city, and they are curious whenever the referees walk together anywhere as a group since we are always in the same outfit.”
Geiger hopes to bring back a more “worldly perspective” to his students, as he has had the opportunity to referee and train with people from different cultures, religions and backgrounds, he said.
“I spend weeks with them and learn not only about who they are as a referee, but also who they are as a person and what their lives are like back home. I learn so much about their countries, their families and their daily lives,” Geiger said. “These are the stories that I like to share with my students.”