Yesterday’s opening ceremony was historical. Not only because athletes from 205 countries and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team marched into the near-empty Japan National Stadium, but because for the first time ever, Team GB, the United States, China, Canada, and Australia all sent more female athletes than males. The wider picture is, however, that Olympic staff members are still overwhelmingly male.
It is in this environment that Sarah Wilson has umpired the bronze match at Rio 2016, which landed her in the top 16 umpires in the world. A phenomenal achievement after a long, difficult journey in sport.
Sarah was a hockey player at the under-21 Scotland level when her back started aching. After taking breaks, trying rehabilitation and different treatments, she had to quit. Her team eventually convinced the devastated ex-player to umpire at the weekends and her incredible talent was soon discovered.
Fast forward to now, Sarah has been voted FiH Female Umpire of the Year in 2018, her success has taken her all over the world and allowed her to re-write the history of the sport she loves. “I have made it further umpiring than I would have, playing. I was a good player, I might have played a few senior games but I would have never played in the World Cup or the Olympic Games, or even Commonwealth Games or the European Championships. I have done all of these as an umpire!”
There has been no slowing down for Sarah lately. In June, she worked at the 2021 Women’s EuroHockey Nations Championship in Amstelveen and is now in Tokyo to umpire at the Olympics. “I am really excited about it and because we had this extra year of waiting, I’m just ready to go!”
“I would love to go and see some of Tokyo but unfortunately because of the strict guidelines, we aren’t really allowed to go outside our hotel,” she adds. “It is different from this point of view, however, it is still special and we are here to do a job, ultimately.”
Involved in the Olympics, Sarah, as a female umpire is still a minority. Not only do women only make up 33.3% of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) executive board but coaches, physios, referees and umpires are largely men. It is an unbelievable achievement to be ‘one of the world’s foremost hockey umpires’ and work in Tokyo, Rio, The Netherlands and everywhere in between.
Travelling (usually) is a great perk, Sarah admits, but the job is far from easy. Just like the players, umpires need to maintain peak physical and mental strength, which requires training. In the past few weeks, Sarah was regularly working out in a sweatsuit to get used to the humidity in Japan.
Beyond exercise for the body, sport psychology, brain-training apps and eye training were crucial parts of her preparation to ensure good decision-making skills and sharp focus. “Umpiring, you are very much in your own head and it’s up to you to prepare. If you make a mistake, nobody is going to be there for you. Mentally, it’s a lot tougher than being a player.”
During the matches, it is always a tense environment, especially as the one who has to make the tough calls. Sarah explains that she has grown to realise, perfection is impossible, but she always tries her absolute best to be fair. Being shouted at is part of the job description and she jokes that as a player, she herself used to yell at the umpires.
Part of the abuse is gender-based, but according to Sarah, the situation is getting better. “Due to the Equally Amazing initiative, women are umpiring some of the pro-league men’s games and vice versa. I find that sometimes the men don’t care who is on the pitch, as long as they are there to make the right decisions.
“I have also experienced times when they felt like they can’t argue with me because I am a woman and they don’t want to upset me. I have also experienced comments like ‘It’s a men’s game’ or ‘Ugh, there is a woman on the other end’. I think we are headed in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.”
There are no available statistics on the ratio of male to female umpires at the professional level, and the data is very limited in other sports too, but reportedly, the number of female football referees has risen by 76% from 2016 to 2020, in England. This is a welcome improvement, but there is room – and demand – to do even better in the future.
The hockey event, both men’s and women’s, start today and you can access the official schedule here. Sarah’s games haven’t been announced yet, but keep an eye out for our Scottish umpire star.