Trailblazing twins Bonaventura on whistling men's and women's matches at Tokyo 2020

The French sisters are breaking new ground refereeing men's handball matches, inspiring young women, and finding the perfect solution to online haters.
By Ken Browne

Charlotte and Julie Bonaventura are French handball referee rock stars, just don't tell them that.

"We are not rock stars," the twins laughed in a videocall with Olympic Channel recently.

They're unquestionably trailblazers - The first ever women's referee pair to whistle a handball final at an Olympic Games when Norway faced Montenegro at London 2012, first to whistle a men's World Championships in 2017, first to take charge of a men's EHF Cup semi-final in May 2019.

Now this double-act is preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this summer after it was confirmed that they will referee men's and women's matches in the Japanese capital.

Philippe Bana, president of the French Handball Federation was delighted with the news and told France's Les Sportives:

“It is a great source of pride but above all a pride of competence. These women are exceptional. Their particular talent is that they are equally at home in women's and men's handball. With the same capacity to be fair and impartial.

"Our referee pair number 1 is a female pair."

"Maybe we are crazy"

The Bonaventura sisters are two of a kind and have been finishing each other's sentences since the '80s - their mother says that as babies when one stopped crying the other started.

They make the perfect pairing on the court too, understanding each other with a glance, "but not telepathy," says Julie, "not yet," chimes Charlotte.

They speak to Olympic Channel from the family home near Marseille.

So how did it feel for the twins to first take charge of games featuring sporting giants like Mikkel Hansen and Nikola Karabatic - both nearly 2m tall and weighing in around 100kg - towering over them?

"When we started, for instance, in France's men's highest division, we had games with Jackson Richardson," says Julie, "who was the big, big star and famous all around the world and... nothing special, no emotion.

"We were watching this guy on TV for years, and when we faced him, it was like any other player. Maybe we are crazy. We have a special brain, 'or no brain'," laughs Charlotte, "or we switch off the brain before the game...

"We are doing our job as referees and that's it, no matter who is in front of us. "

Julie Bonaventura lays down the law at PSG-Montpellier Trophee des Champions match in August 2019.

The best handball players in the world have been seeing double for decades thanks to these two, and sometimes call the twins by the wrong names, but now in their forties they laugh and just get on with it.

"We treat all of them in the same way, no matter if they are Karabatic or Hansen. If they just play and don't care about us, then it means that they accept who we are and why we are here, and I think that for us is what we want."

"We are lucky because we are in the best position on the field and there are moments when we really enjoy it. And yeah, we can see some fantastic players and we are so lucky, we keep the focus on the game but at the same time, we enjoy."

Zinedine Zidane's socks

When it comes to pre-match routines the Bonaventuras don't hang on superstition.

"Maybe because we are from south of France, but we take things very easy and we don't want to be like locked with a special routine, what if you can't listen to your favourite music, or if I forgot my favorite socks...

"And this is maybe some useless stress," charges Charlotte, "you know, if I put my left sock first and then the right, like Zinedine Zidane and so on. I studied mathematics, there's no logical reason for it. It's the same.

"What if your music player is not working, what is going on in your mind, like, oh my God, I'm going to be a disaster today because I could not listen to the Spice Girls!"

"But we understand, it helps calm some people. Just not us."

International handball referees, French twin sisters Charlotte and Julie Bonaventura pose in a municipal gymnasium in Aubagne

Stephanie Frappart blazing the trail in football

The Bonaventura twins refereeing men's handball is usually a much bigger story for people who don't watch the sport than it is for aficionados, as the French duo have been doing it for so long now.

But when they first started taking charge of men's games, what kind of resistance did they meet, on social media for example?

"Oh, actually, we are not really social media people, so we don't really care about what people say. But of course, when you are the first or the only women couple, then it's not so easy.

"But we just proved that if we reach the highest level in France, for instance, it's not because we are women, it's because we deserve it and because our performance is good enough.

"I think that most of the players, they don't care about having women or men referees. They just want to have a good top referees." Julie and Charlotte Bonaventura

"Now, in football, we have a very good French referee who is a woman and she proved to be as good as men with her rating. She's amazing."

Julie is speaking of Stephanie Frappart who became the first woman to referee a major men's European match when she took charge of the 2019 UEFA Super Cup between Liverpool and Chelsea in August 2019 in Istanbul, before being given the whistle for a men's Champions League group game between Juventus and Dynamo Kiev.

"OK, she's a woman," Charlotte continues, "but she's also a top referee."

"In the end there is no women referee or men referee, only referees."

"But I think it's not only the problem is in sport, it's the same in the general life and in business life. In politics it's all the same. And it's a long process.

"We just do our job. I mean, being a referee is already something difficult. It's not an easy task. So it's not needed to put more pressure on."

"But really," says Julie, "when you can feel the respect of the players and the the coaches and so on, it's enough. Whether they just won or they lost the game, they come and shake hands, the respect, you can feel it. And I think it's enough. We don't need words."

"We feel like UFOs"

In an interview with EHF the twins said that they 'feel like UFOs', "because we just came from nowhere," says Julie, "nobody in our family even knew what handball was, and suddenly we were at the Olympics."

"Step by step we reached this level and if you look at like this, it's totally crazy."

"I think for me, the most magical moment of the Olympic Games is the opening ceremony, when it all lights up, it's yeah, uff, we watch it on TV, but being there in the middle, it's fantastic."

"We didn't even think we would whistle at national level. So being in the Olympics for us was not even a dream."

"Yeah, it was totally insane," agrees Charlotte, "this feeling of being in the Olympics, this atmosphere is totally unbelievable. Everybody is happy to be there. Everybody is enjoying. It gives me shivers."

Now they want to inspire other women to experience it too as referees.

"We hope that in the future we will have many women pairs who have the same career. We hope so. And if there are one, two, three, four, five, ten more women couples on our level, then none of them would feel like UFOs.

"Yeah, we might be the first ones in the office, but maybe not the last. Oh sorry Kamala (Harris, the Vice President of the United States, who coined the phrase), this was a nice sentence."

"Refereeing helps you be a better human"

The twins say that being referees has helped them during a pandemic, in lockdown and spending six months without a whistle.

"Referees are used to adapt to any situation," says Charlotte, "so this is just like we face a new problem and we find a solution to get through it, and then we work from home and we train in a different way maybe."

"We keep on training on a physical level, we work on videos just to keep the contact with handball."

Now they are back refereeing, but they have a bone to pick with the makers of the new 'Handball 21' video game.

"You cannot see any referee in this game! It's strange, but they should include the referees."

"I think in all sports games, you should be able to play as the referee also," adds Julie; "That'll be fun."

"As human beings, becoming referees helped us a lot to develop on a personal level. When we began at like 15, we were so shy and we are still shy, but we know how to handle things."

"It gives you a lot of maturity right from the start because you have this pressure, you have bad words sometimes coming from the stands, from the spectators, and it helps you to grow up a little bit faster and say, 'OK, not all the people can appreciate me.'

"It's really nice on a personal point of view to be a referee because it gives you a lot of friends and also a lot of, let's say, calmness.

But being referees has also meant a lot of sacrifice, Charlotte has used her holidays from her job in the Social Security office for ten years, "maybe it's why we don't have children yet," she says, looking at her twin sister.

"But when you love something you don't feel like it's a sacrifice," Julie reasons.

"When you reach like Olympic Games and so on, you forget immediately all the sacrifices, I mean, as long as we keep on enjoying and as long as we feel this light that we have inside our hearts for our sport, then we will be on court.

"And if someone switch off the light like they do at the end of the Olympics inside our hearts, then this will be the moment to stop and to find something else to do in our life and it will be like a second life."

Luckily for handball, that light still burns bright and this inseparable sister act continues to break new ground.

"There is always something new to achieve." - Julie and Charlotte Bonaventura