By Thomas Hall
Though flat-water canoeing has been a part of the Olympic Games since 1924, women canoeists have never been allowed to compete in the event. The male-dominated hierarchy at the International Canoe Federation argued for years that women’s bodies are unsuited to the rigors of high-kneel canoe racing; more recently they’ve said their are not enough world-class female canoeists to merit inclusion in the Olympics.
The women’s field at the recent Junior and Under-23 World Championships held in Welland, Ontario offered a strong counter-argument. The women's canoe events were both deep and competitive. Canada—traditionally a cradle of women’s canoe racing—only managed to medal in two of four U23 events, and didn’t win any medals in the Junior division. Not great for Canada, but it points to the growing strength of the discipline. Canoe Kayak Canada, the sport’s governing body in Canada, hosted a summit on women in sprint in a Welland, Ontario hotel ballroom the day before the Junior and U23 sprint World Championships. The summit was held to share best practices for coaching women in sprint canoe, as well as how to promote it nationally.
Mallorie Nicholson and Laurence Vincent Lapointe, both multiple sprint canoe world champions, spoke about being canoers to a room full of leaders in the sprint world. Nicholson stressed the point that discussions about depth-of-field, ability and the constant pressure on women canoers to prove they have a right to paddle C-boats in sprint competition has to end. Her message was "let us paddle like everyone else, and stop treating us differently. I don't want people to think I don't care about the underlying inequality, but I do think it's time women canoers were not looked at as something different or not equal to the other disciplines."
These discussions and this conference came at an important time as their overall message was clear: there must be a place for women’s sprint canoe in the Olympics. Though it seems that the addition of a women's event is unlikely for the 2016 games, there is still hope that with the added pressure applied by the International Olympic Committee and internal pressure from within the sprint community the news will be different for the 2020 Olympics.
Much of the change in attitude stems from a recent announcement by the IOC that it was reviewing the status of some Olympic Sports. Paddling, which includes both sprint and slalom, was shortlisted for loss of Olympic core-sport status by the International Olympic Committee. Removal of core status means that a sport that was once guaranteed a spot in the Olympics now has to fight to be included in future events. The IOC creates a ranking list of Olympic sports, and, in doing so, let's a sport know what it has to work on if it wants to remain in the Olympics.
That the ICF was at risk came as a surprise to many in the community; however, there were and are areas that the ICF knows it needs to work on. The ICF relies almost entirely on the IOC for funding, and paddling is the only Olympic sport without a major private sector sponsor. However, it's more than just money. The ICF is ranked near the bottom when it comes to gender equity. At the 2012 London Olympics there were 12 sprint events and four slalom events, totaling 16 canoe and kayak races. Women raced in only five.
Getting more bodies to the Games is tricky if not impossible. Even if the ICF wanted to include women in sprint canoe at the Games, it's not simply a matter of decreeing that as of 2016 women can race C1 at the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee allots each sport a number of athlete quota spots at the games, and it's largely up to the international body that governs a sport—in our case, the International Canoe Federation—to come up with a fitting Olympic program based on those numbers. Barring a large increase in Olympic athlete quota spots for canoe and kayak, I see three possible outcomes: (1) Do nothing, in which case canoe and kayak will, eventually, be dropped from the Olympics; (2) remove men’s sprint canoeing from the program, allowing for a closer number of men and women to compete in kayak events only; or, (3) remove one or more men's kayak events to make room for women's canoe events. It's clear none of these possibilities are exactly palatable, no matter how necessary change may be.
However, the international sprint community is finally beginning to understand that women deserve to race sprint canoes at the Olympics as much as men do. It has taken a long time, but with the strength of the races at the Junior and U23 world championships, the pressure from the IOC and initiatives such as the summit organized by CKC, it's getting hard to ignore that women sprint canoers deserve the chance to have the same Olympic dreams as their teammates.
Thomas Hall is the 2008 Olympic Bronze Medalist in 1000-meter sprint canoe.