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Why Isn’t Women’s Canoe in the Olympics?
July 5th, 2012NewsWomenCAN Intl 6 Comments

By Elaine Keene (Canada) – WomenCAN International:


Abby Hoffman, the famous Canadian sports icon wrote the following in the Ottawa Citizen in reference to the 1996 Olympic Games:

“There is no excuse for perpetuating the blatant sexism that persists at the Games. Not only do women compete in only 21 sports while men take part in 27, but the program of events in most sports has fewer events for women. At the Olympics women do kayaking, but for inexplicable reasons, they don’t canoe. Male paddlers do both.”

It’s been about 16 years since Abby Hoffman made the observation that women’s canoe was absent from the Olympics. And although some things for women’s sports have improved over time, much has not. A flawed process for inclusion, a lack of leadership at the top, varying degrees of acceptance within our sport, and incorrect perceptions of and unclear guidance for readiness all contribute to an increasingly frustrating situation for our female athletes. Top paddlers continue to quit the sport because they see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Background: Women have been interested in training and racing Olympic-style canoe since it was included in the Olympics as exhibition in 1924. In the culture of the 30s and 40s, maybe it was felt it was too difficult for the little ladies to maneuver a canoe. Maybe it was just not considered an attractive thing for women to do. For decades we have had to fight the deeply ingrained and very cultural global myth that unilateral canoeing would cause infertility by damaging a woman’s reproductive organs as well as resulting in lopsided breast development. Both the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission and Dr. Don McKenzie (Canada), Chair of the ICF Medical Committee, have repeatedly debunked these myths.

Fast forward to 2012. Women are competing (or are scheduled to compete – e.g., ski jumping) in every Olympic sport and almost every Olympic discipline – except canoe. When you consider that you can take an athletic youth of about 13 years old with little or no exposure to any given sport and turn them into an Olympian in about a decade, why are women still denied their chance to compete at the highest levels of our sport almost a hundred years after its introduction to the Olympics? Unless the current process is altered, it appears that gender equality for women’s sports – women’s canoe in particular – will not come any time soon.

The Status:   Several sources, including Simon Toulson, ICF Secretary General and Richard Fox, ICF 2nd Vice President,
say there is not enough momentum for inclusion of women’s canoe to the Olympic Program and that they are looking at 2020 or beyond. This is despite solid participation at the World Championships, growth of interest worldwide, and the recent inclusion by the IOC of a single women’s canoe event to the Youth Olympic Games. And although women’s canoe has been contested at the Pan American Canoe Championships since 2001, it is not currently listed on the schedule of events for the 2015 Pan American Games to be held here on our own turf (Toronto, Canada).

The Flawed Process:   In my years of advocating for women’s canoe I have noted a pattern for women in sport in general.
Female athletes are encouraged by promises of equality enshrined in the charters of all levels of sporting organizations. But the process for achieving that equality has never been defined. As members vote to amend charters, statutes and constitutions for sporting organizations with equality terminology, they seem to overlook the fact that what equality essentially means is adding women’s events to the schedule. Extra events translate into time added to the schedule and extra expense for the increased participation. When women start asking for the equality they were promised – equal events – the process begins to break down. In accordance with the typical rules for adding events to the programs – rules which were never amended to correspond with equality promises in the charters – the members of the organizations must participate in a vote to decide whether or not they are going to include the requested events. Predictably, a lively debate ensues, alternating between lack of available time or money and quantity and/or quality of competitors. The result generally does not turn out in favour of the women. Often the motion doesn’t even reach the floor in anticipation of lack of support. This is the scenario that plays out year after year, quadrennial after quadrennial for women of sport – particularly at the International Federation level. Equality wording in charters is powerless and meaningless when the members can simply continue to vote against full inclusion for as long as it suits them.

Leadership:   There seems to be a lack of leadership at the highest level of sport when it comes to gender equality. There is politically correct equality wording in the Olympic Charter. It is a bit harder to find the rules about event caps and athlete quotas . International Federations are expected to sort out gender equality issues in light of the Olympic caps and quotas all on their own and that places them in a very difficult position. Because there is a perception of a constant threat of being ‘tossed’ out of the popular summer games, IFs are understandably reluctant to complain too much. Our sport in particular is heavily dependent upon Olympic funding as it doesn’t seem to have secured much in the way of independent sponsorship. At the same time, tension is generated within the sport as the caps and quotas imply that in order to
satisfy the women’s equality issue, men will have to lose events. Ski jumping, however, has yet to see the loss of a men’s event after the women’s event was added in 2011 for the 2014 Winter Olympics. In sports like canoe/kayak that are already under-represented at the Olympics for events and distances as compared to what is raced at worlds, these are understandably painful choices. IC4, for example, has never been nor will likely ever be an Olympic event because of the event caps and athlete quotas. In addition, there can be a very loose definition of equality at all levels of sport. It is rumored that women’s kayak events may be increased at the Olympics to make the sport of canoe/kayak “equal”. Ah.. Sorry, that is not equal. Caps and quotas that were imposed on sports without first allowing the opportunity to equalize seem to be at the heart of the problem when trying to achieve equality.

Acceptance:  Many in our own sport do not see the potential value of women’s canoe –  i.e., they do not seem to consider that adding the ‘missing piece’  (women’s canoe) to our sport might be a healthy thing for it.  Sprint canoe/kayak debuted at the 1924 Olympics as an exhibition sport with an 3 events each. But of the 12 events now in the Olympics, 9 are kayak events and only 3 are canoe events, all three of which are men’s. Is it conceivable that the diminished status of canoe as opposed to kayak might be a natural result of not having a women’s component? With its differing techniques and coach specialization, it would make sense that cash strapped countries would choose to focus their resources on kayak which holds 75% of the medals. Some countries have gone so far as to suggest getting rid of canoe altogether. Adding women’s canoe to the Olympics should help to balance canoe versus kayak events and help to grow our sport.

Readiness:   Invariably there is always an argument about women’s sports not being ready enough in terms of quantity and quality. Despite only being recently supported and promoted by the ICF, women’s canoe is in a very healthy state worldwide, both in terms of quality and quantity – especially considering the lack of development over the decades. Thankfully, Frank Garner and other key members of the ICF like Simon Toulson decided during 2009 Worlds to fully support 4 exhibition women’s canoe events and that support combined with a solid grassroots initiative brought 11 countries together in Dartmouth in 2009 for C1 and C2. During planning for 2009 Worlds it was announced that WC1 200M would be a full medal event for 2010 and the participation doubled the next year to 21 countries. In 2011, 22 countries participated, and we know of at least 3 countries which did not send their female canoeists due to lack of funding. Competition has become increasingly tighter both at the Senior level and especially at Junior Worlds with Canada not experiencing the total dominance it had early on. Women have demonstrated that they are more than ready to compete on the world stage.

Solutions:  If gender equality is to ever become a reality, then the current ‘flawed process’ where members with their own personal agendas are given the opportunity to include or exclude women’s events must be changed. Holding votes to include women’s events seems to contradict charters that have already promised equality. Most female athletes and their supporters would agree that the single fastest way to develop high level competitive athletes is to provide high level competition. Adding a whole slate of women’s canoe events to the national championships in the mid 90’s has resulted in a large number of talented female canoeists in Canada although events on the championships race card are still not equal to the men’s events in terms of number, distance and sometimes type of boat used.

If sports are serious about equality then votes should be held to add events – not men’s events or women’s events – simply events with the expectation that both men and women will compete when participation meets the defined levels. Women do not need different distances for racing. A situation of having equal events in place is like affirmative action. It forces people to do the right thing until they are conditioned to do the right thing. The IOC needs to be called out by not just our sport, but by all sports on their caps and quotas if a sport can’t be gender equal and fully represented at the same time.

Adding women’s events is not ever going to become less expensive or less time consuming. The right of equality, and the original objectives of the Olympic Games – Citius, Altius, Fortius – are not supposed to be tied to a price tag. We are repeatedly told to “be patient”, that “change is slow.” Change doesn’t need to be slow. Unlike paracanoe, which was added to the 2016 program in 2010 with barely enough participation levels at the time, change for women’s canoe is allowed to be slow. Until our sport leadership puts a process in place that enforces equality, I’m afraid that there is no guarantee that women’s canoe will ever make it to the Olympics. And if it does, it is likely to be a single event added to give the appearance of equality.





'6 Responses to “Why Isn’t Women’s Canoe in the Olympics?”'
  1. maria jose mailliard says:

    basta de discriminación, las canoas mujeres necesitamos esa motivación de poder competir en la competencia mas anelada por los deportistas como lo es los JJ.OO.

    María José Mailliard Rodriguez

  2. WomenCAN Intl says:

    “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit …” ~ The Olympic Charter

  3. Sandra Kirby says:

    Absolutely terrific article – well argues and to the many points that women have faced over the many Olympic years.

    I have one bit to add… Marathon Canoe Racing became my de-training sport after my Olympic and National team rowing.

    In 1983, Pam Gilverson and I (both PhD students in Edmonton at the time) won the Canadian Marathon Canoe Racing Championship in Kamloops, B.C.. The World Championships were in Ireland. To my knowledge, the men who won did go. We were told that there was no way a women’s team would be sent internationally.

    What prompted this was the last picture in the series (bottom left). It is the start for Marathon Canoe Racing.

  4. WomenCAN Intl says:

    Hello Sandra – Thank you for your story and congratulations on your Olympic and national team rowing experience! We are very familiar with the plight of women in marathon canoeing – both sit and switch (which I think you are referring to) and Olympic-style (high-kneel) canoe marathon worlds, where women are still prohibited. We are connected with both communities. Sit/switch is very popular, but there is still pay inequity across the board, which gives little incentive to compete at the highest levels. Few of us are independently wealthy. We paddle because we love paddling. But at some point, all of that hard work should be rewarded – with equal events and equal pay for equal work.

  5. […] how canoe events continue to be unavailable for women despite being an event at the Olympics since 1924. This is reminiscent of the BC Supreme Court’s attempt to overturn the IOC ruling on women’s […]

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