By Pam Boteler | President of WomenCAN International

Pam Boteler

The title of your [The New York Times] June 20, 2017 article “Olympic Canoeing Prizes Balance and Adds More Women to Provide it”, by Brian Pinelli, caught my attention and, initially, added to my excitement about the inclusion of women’s canoe events for Tokyo 2020.  But I was immediately lost with the direct, in your face, and negative tone of the article: i.e., feel sorry for the men, and pay attention to their devastation at losing events and athlete spots for Tokyo.  While Mr. Pinelli stated “it was evident that canoe is a sport divided”, the article does more to fuel further division and cause confusion than bring us together and educate the public under a unified understanding of what is happening and why.

The tone was set with the opening photo and caption:

France’s Gauthier Klauss, left, and Matthieu Péché won a bronze medal in the men’s slalom canoe doubles at the Rio Games. Their event has been eliminated. “We are alone, and no one wants to help us,” Péché said.

- Advertisement -

It’s disappointing that the focus is primarily on the men – their loss, devastation and disappointment.   Are the losses, devastation and disappointment of women canoeists not worth noting?  Women canoeists – the single blade paddlers who kneel in their boat, not the double blade kayak paddlers who sit in their boat – have endured nearly 100 years of being kept off of the world’s grandest stage.  They have endured sexual harassment, verbal abuse and ridicule and have been excluded from club, national and international level racing and development programs.  They have been prevented from using equipment, or if they can use it, they may only have access to inferior equipment.  They have either never been offered or simply been denied professional coaching, medical, psychological and nutritional services.  Essentially, women canoeists have had little to no access to the same environment for success as the men, who have enjoyed Olympic status and all of the perks within, just by virtue of being male.

For nearly a century, women who have wanted to race in canoes have said:  “We are alone, and no one wants to help us.”  We at WomenCAN International reached out to the ICF Women’s Commission many times over the years to alert them to discriminatory practices and advocate for women and girls around the world facing obstacles to participation, only to get stony silence.  Isn’t the Women’s Commission supposed to be the Ombudsman for women in our sport? Aren’t they supposed to fight for and provide guidance and help change the culture of our sport?  We have been better served by enlightened men over the years – men who have seen the devastation that exclusion has had on their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.

But let’s get back to the focus of the article:  men losing.   Couldn’t the author have dug a little deeper to ask, and find answers to, questions, such as:

  1. Why must the men lose events – in any sport – particularly at a time when new sports are being added?
  2. Why has the IOC capped the number of athletes and events for the Olympics in the first place?
  3. Has there been an independent economic analysis to determine if the Olympics can afford 15,000 athletes or more, instead of 10-500-11,000?    The Olympics is, after all, a $5 billion entertainment industry.
  4. Why are there still 2 sports which require horses?  Since when is the practice of sport an animal right?
  5. Why does the Olympic Canoeing (Canoe/Kayak) have so few athlete spots (328) compared to other like multi-discipline/multi-equipment/multi-event sports like Cycling and Rowing?  Cycling and Rowing have well over 500 athlete spots.  Why did only 314 canoe/kayak athletes compete in Rio?
  6. Has the International Canoe Federation, with men occupying 90% of leadership positions, just horribly managed Canoeing?  Our sport used to have 451 athlete spots in 1996 and 440 in 1992. How did the ICF lose 121+ athlete spots?   Just imagine what could be accomplished for men AND women with those spots back.

Let’s address a few myths this article alludes to:

  1. Myth:  Women only recently started paddling in Olympic style canoes.
    • Fact:  Women have been paddling canoes Canadian-style dating back to the early 1900s, e.g., 1918, Washington Canoe Club, USA, and even 1914 in War Canoes, Carleton Place Canoe Club, Canada. The first documented Canadian Women’s War Canoe race was 1923. Women raced in the Slalom Mixed C2 (doubles canoe) event between 1955-1981 when the event was offered, but there has never Women’s C2 at the Slalom World Championships.
  1. Myth:   There are not enough women competing in canoe.
    • Fact:  Today, there are nearly 55 countries with women racing canoes in international competition. To add new events, the IOC has historically looked at for least 24 countries across 3 continents.  An example of how women’s canoe event entries have outpaced the men is in the Slalom canoe events.  In 2015, there were 12 countries with men’s C2 (doubles canoe) entries and all but one were European (2 continents represented and it was an all-European final).  In Women’s C1, 21 countries from four continents had entries. Three continents were represented in the final.
  1. Myth:  There is not enough room on the schedule for women’s canoe events.
    • Fact:  The Rio 2016 Canoe/Kayak Sprint Program had about 10 ¾ hours of racing and awards ceremonies over 6 days of canoe and kayak racing.  That’s an average of 1.8 hours a day of use.
    • How much total time would have been added if 2 Women’s Sprint Canoe events were added?  About 2 hours.  6 days equates to 144 hours.  If racing takes just under 11 hours, that means ICF, IOC and others in the “Olympic Family” have 133 hours of down time.
  1. Myth:  It will cost too much to add women’s canoe events.
    • Fact:  If the IOC can buy 450,000 condoms and 175,000 packets of lubricant for athletes (over 40 condoms per athlete?) in the Olympic village, why can’t it purchase 12 more medals for women’s canoe?  Let’s say gold, silver and bronze medals average price was $500.  That’s about $6,000.

Dear reader:  beware the red herring.

When the IOC says it has to “control the costs” of the Olympics and targets the number of events and athletes to do so, that diverts your attention away from the true costs of the Olympics – e.g., facilities, infrastructure, security, the “Olympic Family” (i.e., IOC and national sport officials, their families, sponsors, media, etc. – nearly 600,000 people in London received accreditations) and all of their needs). Rio 2016 cost nearly $20 billion.

In its report entitled “The London 2012 Olympics – A Gender Equality Audit, the University of Toronto Centre for Sport Policy Studies authors state:

“…we are concerned that attempts to control Olympic ‘gigantism’ are being linked to efforts to increase gender equality in a way that pits men and women against each other – reducing the number of men’s events in order to increase the number of women’s events.

It should be remembered that men and women athletes are not the one’s responsible for ‘gigantism’ or for gender inequality at the Olympics, and should not be the ones to suffer through resolving one problem by creating another. If achieving gender equality means increasing the size of the Olympic Programme, at least temporarily, so be it.

Brian Pinelli quoted British canoeist David Florence near the end of the article:  “…if a sport is not in the Olympics, it doesn’t get heavily supported, so Richard and I decided to call it quits.”  And, the French duo, Gauthier Klauss and Matthieu Péché stated they “were distraught at their event’s elimination.”  Reality check:  At least they had their years of glory while their sisters and mothers stayed home.  Women have called it quits, or been forced to quit, since the early 1900s because there were no canoe opportunities for them.  Women have been distraught that they were continuously shut out and had to wave goodbye to husbands, boyfriends, sons, and friends who went to the Olympics, while they stayed home, never able to realize their Olympic dream and reap the rewards made possible from that stage.  Why isn’t that worth noting?

Péché further stated: “It’s hard to live with this, but they’ve just cut the entire canoe family.” Reality check:  This canoe family was severed from the beginning – when men were welcomed in and women were shut out.  If the IOC and ICF were living by the Olympic Charter from day one, we would not be having this conversation.

We are hopeful athletes and supporters in canoe/kayak can join forces and fight for a more equitable and healthy share of athlete spots for our extraordinary and powerful legacy sport disciplines. But mostly, even without the Olympics, we want to show the world that we are stronger together, with equal access and opportunities, as we see in so many countries around the world.


Pam Boteler is President of WomenCAN International, a global advocacy organization dedicated to Olympic status and equality for women in Olympic canoe racing. She was the first woman to compete in canoe at the U.S. National Sprint Canoe/Kayak Championships in 2000, competing against men for two years before women-only events were established. She is a 32x national sprint canoe champion, with 11 international medals. 

- Advertisement -