It’s a man’s world (championships)

Addressing gender equity issues at the recent Sickline Extreme Kayak World Championships

Photos by Bert Willer

By Aaron Mann

For the past nine years, the Adidas Sickline event has billed itself as the extreme kayak world championships. While there is no disputing that Sickline has one of the most internationally diverse field of competitors on the “extreme” racing circuit, the organizers have only just begun to implement the critical changes necessary to fulfill one of the greatest responsibilities of any world championships: the promotion of equal opportunity in sport for both men and women.

After recently giving birth to her first child, 2015 Sickline Champion Mariann Saether came to this year's event hoping to defend her title. Upon completing her first qualification run, a fellow competitor commented that, based on a rule which enables the top-three men's finishers from the year prior to be pre-qualified into the elimination round, they assumed she would automatically advance to the semifinal as well, regardless of here where she finished in qualification. Intrigued, Saether went to check with the organizers. There she found out that the women would not be extended the same courtesy as the men, noting she got “excuses” why the organizers would not retroactively correct this inconsistency. “They said that they could not change it this year because it would ruin their TV schedule,” she says. “They also said that 'most likely' they would change this for next year, but would make no firm commitments."

The organizers maintain they did not include automatic seeding for the women because they “deemed it rather unfair to block 3 out of 8 slots believing that all participating women should have an equal chance to reach the final.” (Read the full response by the organizers below, which goes on to state this is the first year in which competitors have questioned the format.)

None of this is to say that the event organizers are not beginning to make efforts to remedy some of the enduring inequities. The first major change came in 2015 when the victor of the women's category was finally awarded the title of World Champion. This year, the women's podium also finally received payouts equal to those given to the men. And, the women's final was broadcast on television for the first time.

Even as the rules change to become more equal, Saether still believes that women at this event are battling a misogynistic mindset: "Sickline is trying gradually to make it equal between the genders,” she says, “but I find it strange that we as women have to stand up and ask for equality. It shouldn't be like this in today's world."

Such is the responsibility of events that add the title "world championships," which play a role larger than simply crowning a champion. The elite ends of our sport offer a barometer of advances down the skill ladder, and as such, world title events have a duty to lead by ensuring the growth of a sport from the top down, through fair play and the promotion of gender equity.

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In the early days, the event exclusively focused on the men's competition, which organizers touted as the greatest exposition in kayaking. The top-three men would receive sizable payouts with the first place finisher also receiving a golden, professional wrestling-esque championship belt. Meanwhile, the women's category was treated as more of a sideshow, with substantially less prize money doled out to podium finishers and the winner dubbed "Queen of Sickline" rather than being given the men’s title claimed in winning a world championship.

Although these recent adjustments are a step in the right direction, France’s Nouria Newman (pictured above) feels they are long overdue. "There have definitely been some positive changes at Sickline," says the two-time Sickline Champion and 2013 Slalom World Championship silver medalist, "But it is a pity that it took eight years for these changes to happen." Nonetheless, while these changes do show that efforts are being made to rectify the unjust minimization of women at this event, inequities still remain.

Newman also believes further tweaks could help shed this negative stigma. "I'm glad they changed the title to World Champion from Queen of Sickline because nobody wants to be a queen, especially when you consider French history,” she says. “The women's champion should get a belt too, but right now they only give the women flowers. And if the fastest girl gets a belt, the boys should get flowers too because everyone loves flowers!"

Hardware aside, outside the competition rules, Sickline's biggest challenge as a world championship is an enormous disparity in numbers between men and women competing. Currently, Sickline caps its total number of participants around 175 total competitors, regardless of gender. In 2016, of those 175 competitors to start, only 25 (14 percent) of them were female. In comparison to the 2015 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, women made up 39 percent of the total K-1 starts. While there is no denying the fact that the fields at most extreme races are predominantly male, Sickline could legitimize the world championship claim with a stronger effort to expand the number of female competitors.

“The registration is open for 6 months,” race Managing Director and spokeswoman Sonja Güldner-Hamel points out in her official comments below, adding that there is currently a wait-list for those 25 women’s slots. “It's a first-come-first-serve basis. So whoever is the fastest gets the slot. Every athlete, male or female, is welcome.”

According to Saether, one way Sickline bring in more women is by being more inclusive. "They need to open up the women's class and not limit it to 25 women because there are women on the waitlist who want to compete and should be allowed to start,” she says. “[Sickline] should get their stuff together. After all it is 2016, not 1816."

— Read C&K Contributing Editor Charli Kerns’s exploration of boosting women’s participation in paddling in her recent essay, ‘Where are all the Women in this Magazine?’
— Check out photos, videos and results from this year’s 2016 championships, highlighted by wins from Great Britain’s Sandra Hyslop (above) and Spain’s Aniol Serrasolses.
— See Güldner-Hamel’s full responses below:

What are you doing to expand the total number of female competitors in the field at Sickline?
Before getting to the point of that question let's take a step back and look at the history of the Sickline race. The idea to host an Extreme Kayak World Championship on the legendary Wellerbrücke Rapids, a section of the Ötztaler Ache River that has a long-time history of being almost unrunnable, derived from a "Sickline invitational" that was organized by Olaf Obsommer, Berhard Mauracher and friends to raise awareness for whitewater sports and protest against the construction of hydro-power stations.

When we decided to organise the Extreme Kayak World Championship, our goal was to create a benchmark event for the international kayaking community that looks after the athletes and puts whitewater kayaking on the agenda of TV stations and horizontal media around the globe. In order to get a permit to run our race on this dangerous section of the river, with competitors from around the world whom we didn't know, we had to make provisions to convince the public authorities that we are responsible and reliable, i.e. that we have a perfect safety system in place and that we screen the athletes before allowing them to race on the Wellerbrücke Rapids. That's why we have a qualification filtering out the fittest and that's why we only had one open class in the beginning.

The adidas Sickline has always embraced female competitors, women who have participated in the race since its inception, like Martina Wegman or Nina Csonkova. And we've always acknowledged their achievements and celebrated our fastest women as our adidas Sickline Queen. Understandably no woman ever made the cut-off into the top 48 to compete on the Wellerbrücke Rapids. As the kayaking skills of female paddlers evolved around the globe and we saw that the ladies are getting better and better, we progressed, adapted our rules and did lobby work to convince the public authorities that it would be safe to let the top women race.

Our next milestone was the female World Championship. To ensure that the title is of importance and that the female competition is taken seriously by the media, we determined a minimum number of 20 female participants to host a Women's World Championship. 40% would advance to the final (in the men's category 32% advanced until 2015 and 34% as of this year).

The reason for only allowing 175 athletes in total is that regarding daylight hours, cool temperatures in the morning and late afternoon, and reasonable working hours of our safety staff we cannot extend our schedule. That said, for us it doesn't matter whether we have 150 men + 25 women or 125 men + 50 women or 100 men + 75 women. The registration is open for 6 months. It's a first-come-first-serve basis. So whoever is the fastest gets the slot. Every athlete, male or female, is welcome.

What steps have you taken to encourage gender equality?
2015 was the first year, in which we reached and even surpassed the number of 20 female competitors, albeit last minute, which gave us very little opportunity to feature the women's World Championship the way we would have liked to. That's why for 2016 we set a deadline for the female World Championship: 20 entries by 31 August. And now we even have women on the waiting list. This year, we also equated the prize purse and convinced our TV live takers to give us an extra 15 minutes of broadcast time (increasing it from 60 min to 75 min) in order to feature all five runs of the women's final.

Do you feel that Sickline is on par with other World Championship events in terms of promoting gender equality?
We believe that we are cutting-edge, compared to some of the biggest and most acknowledged sports in today's society. To give you a few examples: The first Football World Cup for women took place 61 years after the first World Cup for men. The prize purse for the men's World Cup 2014 was 576 million USD, for the women's World Cup in 2015 it was 15 million USD. Same for American football. The NFL exists since 1920. Almost a century later there is still no Super Bowl for women. Instead we see the Legends Football League with women playing in lingerie that originated from a Super Bowl halftime TV special. To date the IFAF only hosted two Women's World Championship (2010, 2013). And why did it take so long until the first Olympic Women's Marathon was held (1984, Los Angeles) in a discipline that exists since 1896? We believe that we are progressing extremely fast with our event and are promoting gender equality much better than these top-class mainstream sports that all have the financial means to make a difference.

This year, our defending World Champion Mariann Saether voiced her discontent after the qualification, that there was no seeding rule for women (automatic seeding for the top 3 ladies of the previous year) as compared to the men (since the origin of the race, the top 3 of the open class were seeded for the next year, but had to do both qualification runs to determine their time and position in the race ladder for the quarterfinal heats; it's been rather a safety-net than a wildcard, because the top men of the previous year always clocked top 40 times). Automatic seeding for women was never an issue in the history of the race, because we only had such few slots. And we didn't include an automatic seeding in the race format for the Women's World Championship, because we deemed it rather unfair to block 3 out of 8 slots believing that all participating women should have an equal chance to reach the final on the Wellerbrücke. The rules have been the same for years and that question was never raised before by our female competitors and not even mentioned by a single person in our last adidas Sickline survey (Dec15/Jan16) in which we also specifically asked about the race format. If anyone had raised that question we would have queried our female competitors what they deem more important: 3 wildcards for the 2015 medalists or 8 slots to qualify for. In order to get more athlete input outside our regular surveys, the competitors can soon elect a male and female athlete representative into our race commission. We already have the first candidatures.

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