When Washington, D.C.-based paddler Pamela Boteler began her sprint canoe-racing career, she could only compete against men. Sprint, or “high-kneel” canoeing, has been an Olympic sport since 1936. But only in 2002 did USA Canoe/Kayak establish national competition for women sprinters, and only twice has the International Canoe Federation (ICF) allowed women to compete in “exhibition” races at its world championships. It’s a sad fact, says Boteler, that sprint and slalom canoe remain the only two summer Olympic events without gender equality. Now, after a strong women’s contingent showed their stuff at the 2009 worlds in Nova Scotia in early August, Boteler says “there’s still a ray of hope” women’s sprint canoeing will be included as an exhibition sport at the London Olympics in 2012.
“[The 2009 World Championships] were beyond successful,” says Boteler, the president of WomenCAN, an organization lobbying for gender equality in competitive sprint and slalom canoe racing. “From a global standpoint, we had 11 countries on the line.” While Canadian women dominated the medal haul, Boteler was impressed by Team USA’s performance, which included two silver medals from C1 paddler Hannah Menke. Great Britain also claimed two medals—a pleasant surprise that Boteler hopes will work to her cause’s advantage in its bid for 2012.
“We’re going to get in touch with the [London] organizing committee and say, ‘you’re going to look really good if you put this on the schedule,’” says Boteler, who, after cutting her teeth in men’s competition (including a gold medal performance in the “men’s” C4 at the 2001 US Nationals), has competed in every international women’s sprint event since 2002 and scored fifth- and sixth-place finishes in Nova Scotia.
While 2009 marked the second time women canoeists were allowed to compete at the World Championships, it was the first time the ICF hosted a pre-worlds development camp for women’s canoe, which provided a week of intense training with some of the world’s best coaches. According to Boteler, this was an even greater milestone, as it suggests the staunch, Europe-based ICF is backing down from its hard-line stance on women single-bladers. “There are still people who say we don’t belong, even in public,” says Boteler, explaining that reasons for excluding women range from a shortage of participants to the “ridiculous” myth that sprint canoeing damages the development of women’s bodies. Even at the development camp, “we had to paddle in front of this guy and kind of prove that we could actually paddle,” she says. “We were like, ‘just let us compete and we’ll show you what we can do.’”
Boteler expects a further advance in competitive women’s canoeing in the next year. The women’s C1 200 meter is listed as an official event on the yet-to-be ratified schedule for the 2010 World Championships in Poland, and there’s a good chance women’s canoe will be included in the 2010 World Cup in France. “A lot of countries are waking up,” says Boteler. “We want inclusion in the 2016 Olympics to be the inevitable.” – Conor Mihell
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