It might not seem like it, but women’s ski jumping in the Sochi Olympics and women’s canoe racing have a lot in common. Not only are both held on water mediums and involve adrenaline, they also have struggled to be included in the Olympic games.
Women’s ski jumping makes its Olympic debut in Sochi, 90 years after men first jumped in the Games. The road included an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by competitors ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Games. A Canadian court ruled that the International Olympic Committee, not Vancouver organizers, was the only body with the authority to decide. In April 2011, the IOC finally voted to let the women jump in Sochi.
Women’s canoe racers have faced an even more tumultuous path to Olympic inclusion. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) recently announced that it would push to have women’s C-1 slalom and C-1 200m sprint included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Many racers, however, including 19-year-old Australian world C-1W champion Jessica Fox, are not happy. They would rather the ICF pushed to include women’s canoe in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Making matters worse, an official ICF news release claimed its 2020 decision should “certainly please” Fox, who is also the reignig Olympic silver medalist in women’s slalom kayak. The news release included a photo of Fox in a kayak, of all things.
“As a C-1 woman, to know it will be in the Olympics is great news,” says Fox, the daughter of 10-time world slalom kayak champion Richard Fox. “However, as a high level athlete ready for Rio, I’m upset that they assumed it will ‘certainly please’ me, because in fact, I am not celebrating with my arms outstretched. To be honest it’s a slap in the face and misleading. While this news is fantastic for the future of the sport, the reality is that women are still excluded for seven more years.”
Richard Fox, Australian Canoeing’s national performance director, was equally incensed. He penned a letter to the ICF that stated, in part, “The exclusion of women from all canoe class events across both sprint and slalom at the Olympic Games is a remarkable situation for the ICF to maintain until Tokyo, when other sports are clearly shining under the light of increased gender diversity. There are five canoe class events offered for men across sprint and slalom, and not a single women’s canoe event, which means our sport will remain firmly at the bottom of the league table when it comes to gender equity measures in Rio 2016.”
From the U.S. perspective, women’s C-1 is still a work in progress. “Women’s C-1 Sprint and Slalom are in different phases of growth and take different approaches to developing,” says USA Canoe/Kayak Executive Director Joe Jacobi. “In Sprint, athletes typically don’t cross over between canoe and kayak—the athletes driving our Junior Women’s Canoe program chose canoeing a few years ago, have worked exclusively at it, and are starting to gain international competitive experience with solid results.”
Women’s C-1 Slalom, he adds, is a different animal. “In Slalom, it’s more common for athletes to cross over between a kayak and canoe—many of the technical skills can be applied to both. Although most new participants start in kayak, younger athletes are being exposed to the canoe earlier in their development. Having Fabien Lefevre competing for the U.S. now in both kayak and canoe is encourages young athletes to try both categories. But to develop more women canoeists, we need more women engaged in Slalom.”
As for the discipline’s possible Olympic inclusion, he adds that that’s the only way the sport will grow. “Our current program is focused on helping our athletes improve as quickly as possible,” he says. “Confirming their Olympic opportunity is obviously the best way to make that happen.”
Having women’s canoeing on the Pan American Games program in Sprint and Slalom in Toronto next year will be a positive step, he adds. But there are still ample political hurdles to overcome to get it accepted as an Olympic event.
“At the international level, people are referencing different measuring sticks and opinions to support different beliefs about it,” he says. “I’m amazed at the division within the international community over it.”
Fox, meanwhile, without the carrot of Rio, is considering quitting the discipline that made her world champion in order to concentrate on kayaking. She’ll decide later this year whether to continue to compete in C-1. “At the end of the day, K-1 is the Olympic event, so I will be focusing more on that in the lead up to Rio,” she said.
Olympic paddling in a nutshell
• 16 events/330 athletes
• 5 Canoe events for men, none for women
• 11 total canoe/kayak events for men, 5 kayak events for women
• Twice as many male athletes as female athletes