Tuesday 19 March 2013

Why We Need More from the International Canoe Federation

So we knew a few months ago that the International Canoe Federation (ICF) had decided to defer the question of women’s canoe events in the Olympic program until 2020.  To clarify for those that haven’t been following closely, that doesn’t mean that women’s canoe is in the Olympics for 2020. It means that in 2020 the ICF will again look at recommending to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that women’s canoe be included in the Olympic program.   At the time of this announcement I thought that position was quite pathetic.

Then about a month ago we saw that the IOC had decided to drop wrestling from the Olympic program for 2020.  I never like to see a legitimate sport dropped from the Olympics, and knowing some of the Canadian wrestlers I was really disappointed to hear this news.  I found myself trying to figure out why wrestling might have been dropped.  After all wrestling has, for one thing, something that canoe/kayak doesn’t – gender equity.

Now today I keep getting this link popping up on my Facebook. (click here to view)

To sum it up for you, it explains how canoe/kayak was one of five sports, including wrestling, that the IOC was considering for the drop from future Olympic programs.  While canoe/kayak dodged the bullet this time, you’d think that being in the ‘relegation zone’ would be enough to get the ICF to take a very careful and objective look at what they have to offer to the Olympics in order to protect the sport’s Olympic status well into the future.  Instead the ICF reacted by posting an article on their web site in which the ICF president Jose Perurena Lopez stated “disappointment” with the IOC’s sport evaluation system. (click here to view)  I invite you to read the article.  There is not a mention of gender equity anywhere amongst all the self-congratulation.

It seems to me that most of the successful athletes in canoe/kayak, if they encounter a set back or disappointing results, look first to themselves, their preparation and what they can do better before complaining and blaming others for their poor results. There isn’t a lot of patting themselves on the back and self-congratulation, but rather an objective examination of facts and what can be done differently or better to achieve the desired result. It would be nice to see the leaders of the ICF take the same approach as their successful athletes!

The reality is if the ICF cannot manage our sport competently, creatively and in a manner appropriate for the 21st century then the IOC may well, in future votes, opt to drop canoe/kayak from the Olympic program.  It would be entirely within the IOC’s prerogative.  If the ICF’s incompetence ever led to that, who would be the ones to suffer?  The athletes!  What a disaster that would be.

Obviously there are a number of factors the IOC considers when examining the various Olympic sports.  Among them are global participation and the number of member countries a sport has. Canoe/kayak has grown dramatically since I raced internationally in the 80s and 90s.  I am not sure whether that is a direct result of ICF initiatives or just a fortunate coincidence, but I am willing to give the ICF credit for it.  After all it has happened under their watch.  They get a gold star for this.
However in terms of gender equity they have failed miserably.

If you examine the participation of women in various Olympic sports over the last 20 years you’ll see that events have continually been added so that women have the same opportunities to compete as men do.  Look at the list of added events for women - weightlifting, pole vault, wrestling, and boxing to name but a few.  One of the biggest controversies before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics concerned the absence of ski jumping events for women.  These events have been added for Sochi in 2014.  If you go through the entire Olympic sport program, canoe/kayak stands out as the one sport that has done essentially nothing to address this issue.  In 2013 this isn’t just wrong, it’s actually embarrassing.

When I was working with the Toronto 2008 Olympic bid from 1999 to 2001 I had the opportunity to meet most of the IOC members.  It was clear at that time that the IOC had identified gender equity as an important issue.  They even appointed IOC member Anita DeFrantz of the United States, as vice-president and member of the executive committee with a mandate to investigate issues surrounding, and to encourage, gender equity in Olympic sports.  That was in 2000.  Thirteen years have passed since then, virtually every other sport has achieved gender equity, and not only does canoe/kayak have an Olympic program which basically ignores the issue, they actually sound surprised that they are being singled out as a candidate for removal as an Olympic sport.  This blows my mind.  How can the ICF be so obtuse?

The fact of the matter is there is no reason why women shouldn’t be racing canoe in Olympic competition. I have coached women canoe paddlers for the last 17 years and they are very capable of paddling extremely well in high-kneel, single blade events. Given time they can be every bit as competent in canoe as they currently are in kayak.

There is an argument that women’s canoe shouldn’t be part of the Olympic program until “they are ready” and I can agree with that.  When I consider the phenomenal level of athletes I saw medalling in London in men’s canoe and men’s and women’s kayak, I think that in a way it would have been somehow inappropriate to then see women racing in canoe for the same Olympic medals who haven’t yet brought their game to the same level.  However it won’t take long to get these women to the appropriate level.  Consider where the level of women racing canoe was at the world championships in 2010 and then how much more advanced it was at the 2011 worlds and at world cups in 2012. These women, already paddling and from countries with established women’s canoe programs, could easily be ready for 2016 in Rio.  And athletes who haven’t even started paddling yet could easily be ready for 2020.

It takes about 8 years to make an Olympic champion from scratch in our sport.  That was the timeline for me in C1 and the same timeline I saw Adam Vankoeverden follow in his K1.  Both of us were contending for medals at the worlds before we won Olympic medals.  I am confident it is the same in other countries with established canoe/kayak programs.  In fact, I am willing to bet there are programs in some countries that could get their athletes to that level in an even shorter time.  It is absolutely wrong to assume that women canoe paddlers couldn’t get to the appropriate level by 2016 or 2020.  Why then has the ICF not pushed for the inclusion of women’s canoe events for either 2016 or 2020?

It is true that there are some tough issues to consider when taking the bold step to add these events. The IOC wants to cap the number of athletes in the village and therefore assigns each sport a maximum number of athletes allowed.  Adding an entirely new discipline to the Olympic canoe/kayak competition would require cutting the number of athletes from the other 3 disciplines which already exist.  How do you do that?  Do you drop K4 for men and women?  Do you reduce the field in each event?  I understand there are no easy answers, however the issue needs to be addressed. It can’t be ignored.

Demonstrating effective leadership is not necessarily easy.  It involves facing difficult issues and dealing with them head on, not hiding from them, ignoring them or just hoping that they will go away.  Clearly the IOC has the sport of canoe/kayak under the microscope and the very fact that our sport is there, being considered for removal from the Olympic program, should be enough to make ICF member federations from around the world demand action from the ICF leadership on this issue.

There are also other things that could be done to the Olympic canoe/kayak competition to make it more attractive to the IOC.  For instance reintroducing 500m events for K1 and C1 for men would provide an outstanding racing spectacle and wouldn’t require any extra athletes.  It would be a showdown event in which the 1000m and 200m specialists meet.  Women should be racing 1000m in kayak.  If you don’t like either of those ideas then maybe there should be 5000m K1 and C1 races added.  Again this wouldn’t require more athletes as the 1000m athletes would do these events.  Adding these extra races would provide more opportunities for superstar, multiple-medal athletes to emerge, thus raising the profile of our sport. It would also, more importantly, provide greater entertainment value for those spectators paying very high prices for Olympic tickets.  The cost of minting a few more sets of medals is a small price to pay for the enhancement these extra events would bring to the competition.

It is clear that the ICF needs to step up to preserve our status as an Olympic sport.  If the current group of people running the show can’t do that they should step aside and make way for a new generation of people who care passionately about the sport, are creative and forward thinking, and are aware of and sensitive to 21st century issues.  Anything less risks cheating all of us of our sport’s Olympic future.  I’m not sure about the best way to proceed to get the ICF to step it up, but it looks like it will have to be something coming from the grass roots as they haven’t demonstrated anything that inspires much confidence to this point.

If you’ve read this post and care, then please write a letter to your national federation and implore them to demand action from the ICF on the issue of gender equity sooner rather than later.