As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games draw ever closer, we talk to Alhambra Nievas about her experience of refereeing the women’s gold medal match in Rio and look at how far female officials have come since that momentous occasion.
Alhambra Nievas takes no greater delight than seeing gender barriers tumbling down on her watch as a World Rugby Referee Development Manager.
Once a pioneering female official herself and the first person to referee an Olympic rugby sevens gold medal match, Nievas takes great pride in the achievements of the current generation of referees and assistant referees who are changing the course of history.
In the three-and-a-half years since the Spaniard became the first woman to referee a men’s international in Europe, when taking charge of Finland versus Norway in October 2017, female officials have increasingly broken new ground.
Only this week, it was announced that Hollie Davidson, Scotland’s first full-time female referee, would make her Guinness PRO14 refereeing debut for Glasgow’s rearranged match against Treviso.
“I feel we have seen a big difference in the past year, we have more full-time professional referees now than was in the case in the past. And the most important thing is we are seeing more and more referees involved not just in the women’s game but in the top men’s competitions,” 37-year-old Nievas told World Rugby from her home in Granada.
“For example, Amy Perrett has done a Super Rugby game in Australia, and Aimee Barrett-Theron, from South Africa, did the same last December. They are two key examples of how female referees are taking the opportunities and leading the way and showing that to have a refereeing career is about hard work, skill and a lot of commitment, not about gender.
— Alhambra Nievas (@lunalni) February 11, 2021
“Hopefully, these opportunities will keep coming for the new generation. They have clear positive role models in both Amy and Aimee and Joy Neville in Ireland, who was the first to do many things in Europe, like refereeing in the ECPR competition and being TMO for men’s and women’s internationals.
“We have Sara Cox from England and Hollie Davidson from Scotland who have been appointed to referee in the European Challenge Cup and it is great to see Hollie take another step forward this weekend.”
Another source of encouragement for Nievas is the identifiable pathway that helps players transition into officiating.
Selica Winiata, for example, made her debut as a referee in December 2019 and is in contention to officiate at the Olympics before hoping to win a place in the Black Ferns squad for Rugby World Cup 2021.
“We’re seeing more and more top players from the elite game, when they decide to stop playing, coming to the refereeing side,” Nievas said.
“Selica Winiata, from New Zealand, and Julianne Zussman, from Canada, are two key examples.
“They have been involved in Rugby World Cups, as recently as 2017, so it shows just how fast you can transition to the top level.”
Once a top-level player herself, Nievas went on to enjoy a wonderful career as a referee before hanging up her whistle after Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco.
The World Rugby Referee Award recipient in 2016 has memories though that will last forever, not least from rugby’s return to the Olympics after a 92-year wait, but in sevens, not 15s.
“Being very, very honest, to be at the Olympics was like a dream for me because ever since I was a young girl, I have loved sport and played a lot of different sports. Every time the summer Olympics was on, I would spend hours watching on the TV dreaming of being there,” she said.
“I am now 37, so in that moment the tennis player Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario was one of the top players for a while, along with Steffi Graf, and I used to enjoy watching her play as well as the basketball team which was very good at the time.
“Of course, I dreamed as a kid of being there as an athlete, not as an official, but to be there, albeit with a different perspective, was an amazing experience.
“When we got off the plane we queued to go through passport and immigration control and we saw some key players from the USA basketball team, and we were like ‘Wow, we are here, and this is really happening’.”
Nievas’ performances in the tournament earned her the right to take charge of the gold medal match, a 24-17 win for Australia against arch-rivals New Zealand.
“It was a privilege (to get the appointment), I felt really emotional when they announced that I was the referee for the final.
“I won’t say I was nervous because I had several opportunities to referee in finals on the World Series. I think that held me in good stead and to stay calm and confident. But obviously, it was a special feeling, an excitement, that I was going to be refereeing an Olympics final.
“The atmosphere was great; I had some friends in the stands and I know my family was watching from home. With the time difference between Brazil and Spain, it was actually my birthday in Spain when the final kicked off, and my family sent me a lovely video with their best wishes for me.”
Nievas is now doing her bit to make sure that the officials selected for Tokyo are equally well-prepared to make the big calls in the heat of the moment and help build on the legacy of Rio.
“The Olympics was a great success for rugby, for our sport,” she reflected.
“So with Tokyo in July and then the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, it is going to be a massive year.
“We’re going to be seeing the best players in the world in two great competitions, and it is very exciting.
“From an officiating point of view, we are trying to do the best we can, in the challenging circumstances we are presented with, to maximise the opportunities available so our referees are as ready as they can be for the big stage.
“We are very confident in our team and we will make sure we will play our part in making sure both competitions are successful.”