Growing up in the Swiss canton of Jura, Nicole Petignat says, "all we had was soccer." Lots of girls dabbled in the beautiful game, but Petignat made a rarer call: she decided to become a referee.
What a call it turned out to be. Petignat, 36, is set to become the first woman ever to referee an international men's club soccer match when Sweden's AIK Solna plays Iceland's Fylkir this month in the UEFA Cup qualifying round in Sweden. Although
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But challenging it is. Over the past four years, while officiating at games in Switzerland's top division, she has heard rumblings of discontent. "Some men were not happy to have a woman telling them what to do on the field," she says; at times she had to intervene to physically separate quarreling players. "So tough character and confidence in yourself are a must."
Today, Petignat says, she feels more accepted by male players, referees and fans but, like other trailblazing women in male-dominated jobs, she feels pressure to excel. "I know I have to be good so others may get the chance," she says. "It is not easy because I am judged more harshly than a man, and any mistakes I make are attributed solely to the fact that I am a woman." So far, two French assistant referees are the only other women in the UEFA field, and few are in the pipeline.
So how does she deal with the pressure? "I believe that ultimately speed, strength and endurance are more important than gender," says Petignat, who works out regularly and eats nothing but pasta before a match. "But I hope that when the novelty wears off everyone will see me just as a referee, not a female referee. That will be a measure of success."
An Olympic Dry Run In Paris
Take your marks. On Aug. 23, track and field's finest will gather in Paris for the biennial World Championships. For nine days, they will run, hurdle, jump, put, vault and throw for the gold, silver and bronze. Real competition, but to many athletes, it will be a very public practice session. "Everything leads to the Olympics," says Max Jones, the British team's performance director. "Paris is almost a dress rehearsal." The results from the Worlds will help shape the run-up to Athens 2004. "You're looking for people to get into the top eight," says Jones. "They'll be in touching distance for a medal next year."
The Paris contest is likely to be dominated by a flock of athletes who seem near unbeatable. Maria Mutola of Mozambique is undefeated this year at 800 m. Mexican 400-m runner Ana Guevara hasn't lost since August 2001. Felix Sánchez of the Dominican Republic has won his last 22 races in the 400-m hurdles. And Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, the three-time defending champion at 1,500 m, feels so good at that distance, he says, that "my goals are to win the 1,500 m and take a medal in the 5,000 m." He'd be the first ever to do the medal double at Worlds, and only "Flying Finn" Paavo Nurmi won both Olympic golds, back in 1924. Why is El Guerrouj trying? "I needed a challenge."
Expect more drama in the most glamorous races: the men's and women's 100 m. With defending champion Maurice Greene of the U.S. in a slump, the men's race is wide open. American Marion Jones usually dominates the women's race, but she's out because she's just had a baby. Look for Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas and Zhanna Block of Ukraine to step up in Jones' absence.
Paris will be the last World Championship for Jamaican-born sprinter Merlene Ottey, 43, who now runs for Slovenia. Over her 25 years in international competition, the elegant track queen has racked up 28 World and Olympic medals, more than any other woman. But even she has her eye on next year: though a medal in Paris would be great, one in Athens would be even better the ultimate cap to a glittering career.