“Freestyle Kayaking is the Olympic contender”

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Written by Jez | Australian Freestyle Kayaking and Boatercross Committee Chair.

Freestyle kayaking is now a strong contender for inclusion in the Olympic Games. World championship events are being watched by tens of thousands live and millions of viewers via TV productions. The sport of freestyle kayaking is a very dynamic and exciting sport. The combination of large audiences and big moves has made freestyle a front runner in kayak disciplines for the Olympic Games.

Talking with those in the know, there are some clear reasons why freestyle should be included in the Olympic Games. Firstly, it has a massive following, just look at the 2013 World Championships on the banks of the Nantahala River, where thousands packed large stadium seating with standing room only to watch the world’s best freestyle kayaking athletes battle it out. This was in addition to the millions that watched the syndicated television production through the Fox network as well as daily highlight shows and worldwide live stream feed. This has been by far one of the strongest and largest viewing audiences seen on this scale and potentially could be one of the most viewed kayak television productions in the world. A Facebook page called, ‘Support Freestyle Kayaking in the Olympic Games’ reached over 30,000 people in its first week of creation.

Another reason for including freestyle in the Olympics is that freestyle only requires two medals, one men’s and one women’s. Gender equality is upheld within freestyle, which is a challenge that other kayaking disciplines and sports are facing. Within this, freestyle would be able to include both C1 and K1 together in what is classed as ‘open competition’, imagine seeing the worlds best C1 paddlers going head to head with the worlds best k1 paddlers.

Freestyle at the Nantahala Outdoor Centre in North Carolina, USA.
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Countries from all around the world complete in freestyle kayaking. Europe, The Americas, Asia and Oceania all have strong teams that showcase freestyle at its best. In the 2015 World Championships there was a fantastic story which included athletes from Uganda, for most the event was their first time out of their country, first time in a plane and first time experiencing a world championships. The world rallied around these spectacularly enthusiastic athletes to ensure that they could compete. The Ugandan team were the talk of the town as they battled with visas and permission from Canada to attend the competition, finances were raised and letters were sent to numerous politicians and finally permission was granted a week before competition commenced. They were by far the most popular athletes at the competition with their smiling faces and beaming positive attitude. This kind of attitude is common among freestyle athletes, a true Pierre de Coubertin spirit.  “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Freestyle is often called an inclusive sport as it is full of positive athletes who enjoy what they do and are all about helping everyone out. If you look around at a competition, everyone is smiling and having a good time. It is not uncommon to have a chat with a World Champion in an eddy while waiting your turn to paddle onto the freestyle feature and find that they are more down to earth than most, it is just such a positive and inclusive atmosphere.

Freestyle draws in a youthful new audience which is of interest to the International Olympic Committee. In a Nielsen report it states:

Olympics ratings are clearly highest among older viewers. Ratings among teenagers are 57% lower than the national average for this year’s prime time Olympics broadcasts. Ratings among the 18-49 group are 20% lower than the national average, while ratings among those 55 and older are 82% higher”.

This finding demonstrates why BMX and other freestyle sports are now being included in the Olympic program. The new and exciting discipline of freestyle kayaking would go a long way in drawing a younger audience to the Summer Olympic Games in a similar manner to freestyle skiing has in the Winter Olympics.

If included in the Olympic Games, whitewater slalom could run throughout the first week and freestyle kayaking the second, athletes and officials would still be able to have their own space, training sessions, and exclusive water throughout these times. Currently, the schedule for the Rio Olympics shows the slalom course as being used for five days only, which considering this roster would allow freestyle to be included in future Olympic Games during the second week. Slalom courses generally already have a good freestyle feature with only a small amount of tweaking required to create a world class feature. This expands the use of the courses built for the Olympics which would allow the multi-million dollar course to be used during the entire Olympic schedule.

With so many large companies already supporting the top freestyle athletes such as Red Bull, Adidas and GoPro as well all large kayak manufactures having a keen interest in playboating, it is no wonder that this topic of conversation is getting pushed into the limelight.

There was a paper recently published talking about Boatercross as an alternative which shows the push by slalom to include this discipline, however athletes would be mainly made up primarily of slalom boaters who already have a clear and defined pathway to the Olympic Games and the funding associated with this. However, freestyle opens up a new generation of spectators, athletes and a fresh sport for the International Olympic Committee. Freestyle kayaking has strong governing regulations which have been in place for many years whereas the rules for Boatercross are only now being developed in an attempt to rush it into a potential Olympic discipline. Here in Australian we are in a unique position to see the two side by side, as the country who held the first nationally sanctioned Boatercross event, we have crowned national champions in both disciplines and have been running both disciplines here for many years. Our committee have run both disciplines throughout Australia and seen the progression of both disciplines for a while. We have seen that freestyle continually draws in more athletes, spectators and sponsors than Boatercross every year.

The regulations for freestyle are solid, with a strong history of open and fair judging, solid competition and exciting showcasing of athleticism both on the water and above it. Freestyle athletes, spectators, viewers, manufacturers, officials and most importantly the general public would all love to see the sport be a part of the Olympic Games.

At the London Games there was a lot of interest in the sport when it was showcased at Lee Valley, kids would point, everyone would cheer and the crowd got very excited seeing the world’s best freestyle athletes throwing massive aerial moves down the Olympic course. While slalom was by far the feature at London, how amazing would it be to stand side by side with our slalom colleagues instead of always being considered an ‘outside sport’.

Freestyle athletes train just as hard as Olympians, as we all know it is a financial challenge for athletes representing their countries. Most freestyle athletes train and compete just as hard as Olympic athletes with little to no financial support from their federations. The absolute top athletes have big name sponsors such as Red Bull and Adidas, but the vast majority of athletes have to pay to compete, fly, and train, with most athletes having to stay in tents around the world close to good freestyle features to support their training. The Olympic status would finally allow these athletes to be recognised as professional athletes providing them with the opportunity to walk side by side sprint and slalom into the Olympic Stadium, a feeling freestyle athletes are currently not able to even dream of. Allowing Boatercross instead of freestyle into the Olympics would be giving slalom and their athletes a way to increase their discipline rather than allowing new athletes and a fresh new image to be a part of the Olympic Games. The strong potential of Japan winning a medal in freestyle might also be a considerable factor when it comes to Tokyo 2020 via Hitomi Takaku, a very strong athlete indeed.

Finally, freestyle is exciting to watch, you haven’t experienced paddle sports until you see a finals under lights, music pumping, crowd cheering, playboating is truly where the action is. So freestyle has it all, viewers and spectators wanting to watch it, athletes ready to showcase their sport, a fair and equitable judging system that has been in place for many years and a very exciting and dynamic sport that is ready to take the next step.

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