Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Rachael Blackmore’s achievement this month in becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National, in company with Minella Times, marked a heady high point for women in sport - that is, the wider world of men's and women's sport.

But in company with the rising profiles of  athletes such as Blackmore there is a growing wave of women, many of them former elite performers themselves, who are making their way to the top of women's sport - and in some cases men's – as umpires and referees.

The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) recently announced its highest proportion of women referees to date in the list of those who will officiate in this summer's tournaments, including at Tokyo 2020. FIBA has selected five women among the 30 referees who will be officiating at the Olympic basketball tournaments.

The five women have officiated at women's Olympic qualifying tournaments, and four out of the five officiated at the 2018 FIBA Women's World Cup in Tenerife in Spain.

All five also officiate men's games at national level.

This pool of referees will be part of the official teams for this summer's men's Olympic qualifying tournaments in Canada, Croatia, Lithuania and Serbia, as well as the 2021 FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup.

There will be also female commissioners and referee instructors at Tokyo 2020, the four FIBA Olympic qualifying tournaments and both FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cups.

In offering women referees such a prominent role this summer FIBA is acting on one of its main strategic focus areas for 2019-2023, namely "Women in Basketball", which has the specific aim of developing and increasing representation for female coaches and officials.

Rachael Blackmore, first female winner of the Grand National earlier this month, announced afterwards:
Rachael Blackmore, first female winner of the Grand National earlier this month, announced afterwards: "I don’t feel male or female right now, I don’t even feel human" ©Getty Images

Within the last month there has also been another major step forward in terms of women refereeing in top-class international men's football.

France's Stéphanie Frappart became the first woman to officiate a men’s World Cup qualifier as she took charge of The Netherlands’ 2-0 win over Latvia.

Frappart was the first woman to officiate at a Ligue 1 match in 2019, two years after Bibiana Steinhaus became the first woman to referee a Bundesliga match.

In December, the French official became the first woman to officiate in a men's UEFA Champions League match, refereeing a game between Juventus and Dynamo Kiev.

She also refereed the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in which the United States beat The Netherlands 2-0 at Lyon's Groupama Stadium in France.

Shortly after Frappart's World Cup qualification game another female referee, Kateryna Monzul of Ukraine, officiated another qualifier involving Austria and the Faroe Islands.

In the realm of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), Karen Díaz Medina and Francia González officiated in Suriname’s 3-0 win over the Cayman Islands, as assistant referee and fourth official respectively, thus becoming the first women to officiate in a CONCACAF men’s World Cup qualifier.

American officials Kathryn Nesbitt, Jennifer Garner, Brooke Mayo and Tori Penso have also been officiating men’s World Cup qualifiers in the CONCACAF region as assistant referees or fourth officials.

Meanwhile the first female referee to be appointed to take charge of a men’s English Football League (EFL) game has acquitted herself with honour and earned praised for her performance by the managers of the two teams.

Rebecca Welch, 37, oversaw Port Vale's 2-0 win at Harrogate Town in League Two on April 5.

Welch, from Washington, County Durham, has also refereed seven men’s games this season in the National League, the tier below the EFL.

Recently promoted to UEFA's elite category of officials, Welch had taken charge of the Women's FA Cup final at Wembley before and is one the FIFA's international list.

Amy Fearn became the first woman to referee an EFL game when she came on as an injury replacement in the 2010 Championship game between Coventry City and Nottingham Forest, but Welch was the first woman to referee an encounter from start to finish.

France’s Stéphanie Frappart became the first woman to officiate at a men’s World Cup qualifier as she took charge of the Netherlands’ 2-0 win over Latvia last month ©Getty Images
France’s Stéphanie Frappart became the first woman to officiate at a men’s World Cup qualifier as she took charge of the Netherlands’ 2-0 win over Latvia last month ©Getty Images

Speaking after her appointment Welch told the EFL's official website: "Initially I wasn't really aware of being appointed as the first female referee.

"I was just given the appointment and I was over the moon but, when you kind of reflect on it, you think you're the first woman ever to do this, so I'm extremely proud and my family's extremely proud as well."

Harrogate manager Simon Weaver said he was impressed by Welch's performance and hoped her display signalled the start of more women officiating in the EFL, Sky Sports reported.

"I think she was very good indeed," Weaver said. "Important calls were made throughout and they were the right calls.

"Hopefully it's just par for the course that we see female referees and officials in the EFL. It's about time."

Port Vale boss Darrell Clarke agreed with his opposite number's assessment of Welch.

"We need to see more women referees and lineswomen moving forward," said Clarke. "They should be judged like anyone else and she's had a good start."

Paul Field, chairman of the Referees' Association, had said pre-match that the appointment "can only lift the recruitment of young ladies into the game".

With 100 days to go until the scheduled start of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games, World Rugby announced a squad of 22 match officials for the women’s and men’s rugby sevens competitions, with the 11 due to take charge of the women's matches containing eight female referees.

Two of eight women selected, Sara Cox and Amy Perrett, officiated at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Perrett refereed the women’s match between France and Spain that was the first-ever rugby sevens game in an Olympics, and also officiated in the bronze-medal match. Also in 2016 she became the first woman appointed to referee men's teams in Australia’s National Rugby Championship and the first female assistant referee in Super Rugby.

On August 29 last year Perrett achieved another distinction as she became the first female to referee in Super Rugby, taking charge of the match between Brumbies and Western Force, and she has since officiated at other matches, most recently the meeting of Western Force and Waratahs on April 17.

Amy Perrett, who became the first woman to referee a Super Rugby match in 2020, pictured earlier this month officiating a Rebels-Reds game ©Getty Images
Amy Perrett, who became the first woman to referee a Super Rugby match in 2020, pictured earlier this month officiating a Rebels-Reds game ©Getty Images

Three of the women referees are either current or recent players of the game at elite level.

Selica Winiata is a current Black Ferns player who has been capped 40 times and is aiming to compete at the Rugby World Cup on home soil next year.

She was a Rugby World Cup winner in 2017, scoring two tries in the final at her second Rugby World Cup, and has already refereed at four events on the World Rugby Sevens Series.

Also making the conversion from player to referee is Julianne Zussman, who scored 18 tries in 44 tests for Canada and played in three Rugby World Cups, claiming a runners-up medal in 2014.

And Madeleine Putz played for Australia, including at the 2014 Rugby World Cup.

The route from elite performer to elite official is one that was also taken by Sarah Winckless, who on April 4 became the first woman umpire in the 166-year history of the men's Boat Race as the event took place - due to COVID-19 restrictions - away from its traditional course on the Thames, instead held on the Great Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Before the race between the crews of the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge got underway, 47-year-old Winckless - who competed at three Olympics, earning bronze with Elise Laverick in the double sculls at Athens 2004, and also won world quadruple sculls gold in 2005 and 2006 - commented: "If you want to be involved in your sport, you don't necessarily have to have done a huge amount of rowing or be a top-level rower to be a great umpire.

"It's about being able to read the crews and see what's going on and react optimally in the moment. It's my responsibility to ensure that they can have a safe and fair crack of the whip.

"That is a real responsibility, I'm holding the dreams of the athletes in my hands.

"Hopefully I say go, the coxes do their job and we have an exciting but quiet race from my perspective. However, the truth is I don't expect that to happen."

That expectation turned out to be correct as Winckless was obliged to make multiple calls in the early part of the race to the coxswain of the Cambridge boat, Charlie Marcus, for steering too close to his opponents.

"In my briefing I told the coxes that what I wanted was two foot between the blades," Winckless told insidethegames.

Sarah Winckless, the first woman to umpire the men's Boat Race, keeps her eye on the crews as they move down the Great Ouse ©Getty Images
Sarah Winckless, the first woman to umpire the men's Boat Race, keeps her eye on the crews as they move down the Great Ouse ©Getty Images

"I did only say Cambridge, and then I did use the coxswain’s name, which indicated an escalation and an indication to Charlie that I was getting somewhat agitated. And to be fair Charlie did move each time I asked him to, but he then moved back again to crowd Oxford again, so that’s why you saw multiple calls at that point.

"If there is a foul, which is when the blades or the boat or the people hit each other, because there has to be contact, at that point I would be looking at who was at fault and who was in the right bit of water and who was not, and was it a deliberate foul.

"They got close, their blades were close at times, but we didn’t have a foul situation.

"Every umpire or referee really wants to be facilitating the race or the game, not disqualifying. So clearly I was glad it didn’t get to that."

Winckless said the only time she had to take up the red flag with a view to stopping the race was when the crews encountered a large mass of floating weed near the centre of the river, but both managed to heed her warnings and steer clear.

Speaking before the race about her impending landmark task, Winckless said: "I believe you have to see it to want to be it."

Winckless told insidethegames: "I heard that in 2011 from Geena Davis at a conference for Women in Sport, and she was talking about female role models and her experiences in the movie industry. For instance in crowd scenes at that time there were only 11 per cent females, and for every element you would see a gender disparity and perhaps also a lack of diversity on our screens.

"That was her line. And I thought it was really interesting because of some of the beliefs I had as a young girl about what I could and couldn’t do. I never dreamt I would be lucky enough to be a full-time athlete for 10 years. The only full-time athletes I knew about when I was growing up were male footballers.

"Of course the National Lottery and John Major’s decision to put sport in the Lottery changed that. I was very lucky that the year I joined the team was the first year of Lottery funding, and we all know what happened to the results at that point - it transformed sport in the UK for men and women.”

Reflecting upon the historic nature of her appointment, Winckless added: "I was hugely humble I was given the opportunity. What it took was for me to say yes to something that scared me, and that isn’t a word of a lie, umpiring that race was a scary prospect!

"But that yes really came eight, nine years ago when I started on this path for the race of a couple of weeks ago.

"It was a complete privilege being the first woman to do that job, but equally I wasn’t saying 'Oh gosh, I’m a woman, this is going to be harder.'

"The system definitely supported and accepted me. The men who were already umpires were incredibly generous with their knowledge and helped me to develop. They did that brilliantly, so again it takes men and women to say yes and develop the system, because it might have been easy for the men not to do that.

"I think there is a third element to this. When I joined the umpires panel the mindset was that the women would umpire the women’s races and the men would umpire the men."

Sarah Winckless is interviewed for the BBC by her former team mate Katherine Grainger after becoming the first woman to umpire the men's Boat Race earlier this month ©Getty Images
Sarah Winckless is interviewed for the BBC by her former team mate Katherine Grainger after becoming the first woman to umpire the men's Boat Race earlier this month ©Getty Images

That assumption changed, Winckless contends, when Simon Harris, a member of the Cambridge panel of umpires - who work in tandem with their Oxford counterparts in alternating responsibilities each year - was chosen to take charge of the Women's Boat Race in 2015, the first occasion on which they raced on part of the traditional Putney-to-Mortlake course on the Thames.

"So suddenly," Winckless said, "we were at a point where it was no longer men umpire the men and women umpire the women. That started to open up the idea that any umpire can umpire any race."

That Winckless applied for the Cambridge rather than the Oxford umpires’ panel is explained by the fact that she is a graduate of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where she studied natural sciences and land economy.

The current Master of Fitzwilliam is Sally Morgan, who served on the Olympic Delivery Authority for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. She was preceded by Nicola Padfield, the criminal justice expert who was appointed in 2013.

These two women are part of a pattern at Cambridge, where in the space of the last decade this most ancient and traditional academic office has been occupied increasingly by women incumbents.

In October 2019 Sonita Alleyne, a black, Barbados-born media entrepreneur who was brought up in Walthamstow, east London was appointed Master of Jesus College, bringing the total number of women in charge of Cambridge colleges to 15 out of 31.

Does Winckless believe this pattern applies to other areas of female aspiration, including those in the sporting realm?

"Absolutely," she said. "Within all worlds as soon as you start to get some diversity and different people in those roles it then becomes possible. Suddenly you get great candidates, talents in different packages, who are applying for the roles, which is often the first barrier.

"We’re not just talking about refereeing and umpiring here. So many times people self-select themselves out because they just don’t see people like them in those kind of roles. And I wonder how many brilliant women before this era self-selected themselves out of those Master jobs because they seemed to be for the men."

How does Winckless feel about the frequently expressed view that when it comes to roles seen traditionally as being within the male domain, women have to be twice as good to be accepted?

"It’s definitely something I’ve heard," she said. "And I’ve heard it said that if you are a female of ethnic diversity you have to be three times as good. It is something that we need to keep challenging."

Winckless however does not see her own pathway in quite those terms. "I haven’t seen that. I think you have to sometimes be patient, and work out when to fight your battles, but if you keep doing the right things then the opportunities do come.”

Was she aware of any awkwardness with the crews at the Boat Race?

"I got no sense of that. I hope they respected me as an ex-athlete and a fellow rower, but at the end of the day I was there to facilitate their athletic endeavours."

While the responsibility of the task may have been scary, the experience itself was similar to that expressed after her winning ride by Rachael Blackmore: "I don’t feel male or female right now, I don’t even feel human."

Winckless added: "That was how I felt."

While she thinks she is likely to be playing more of a supporting role at next year’s Boat Races following her high-profile task this year, Winckless is confident this will not turn out to be a one-off.

"It’s a matter of developing the panel and making sure we have more women who are eligible to do it," she said. "At the moment it’s myself and Judith Packer, who umpired this year’s Women’s Boat Race.

"We are looking at the governance of the panel to see how we make it more accessible for different umpires to come in and take charge of the main races.

"That’s something we are working with Boris Rankov, the chair."

So in the next 10 years, we can expect other women to be umpiring the men’s Boat Race?

"Correct," Winckless confirms. "I would hope and expect so."