Up the creek without a paddle…

Or why some canoeists are up in arms with the ICF

By Richard Fox | Sportscene

If you’re planning to attend the canoe sprint world championships in Racice, Czech Republic, in August, make sure to check what events are on the program or you could find yourself up the creek without a paddle.

You can keep up to date by following the event website, where the latest program changes were announced in a news item last week. But don’t be confused by the official event bulletin which shows a different set of events.

Not surprisingly, there are some frustrated athletes from countries like Hungary, Russia, France, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldavia and Kazakhstan making waves about the changes, lack of consultation and late notification. And let’s face it, since the last minute event changes were announced out of the blue for London 2012, the ICF has not won a spot on the sport governance podium.

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In a letter to the ICF [Athletes letter, 15MB] under a “savecanoesprint” email a group of [international] athletes has accused the ICF of breaking its own rules and has asked for an explanation.

“We do not agree with the direction you are sending us, we do not understand and we do not know who makes these decisions, and what you are guided by!

The program of the Olympic Games has already put the end to the C-1 men 200m. The program of the World Championships puts the end to the mass character of our Sport! The traditional Canoe-four event is totally disappearing… This is a great tragedy! We, the athletes, do not understand these decisions”. The letter states.

Website of the 2017 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Racice, Czech Republic. Click on picture to visit.

The Rationale 

So, let’s imagine the ICF rationale is something like this: We need to reform our sport and keep up with the IOC Agenda 2020, especially in terms of gender equality and reflect this approach as far as possible at the world championships of our Olympic disciplines. Fair enough. This means an equal number of events for men and women and an equal number of athletes from each gender. Fait accompli, the ICF has walked the talk, ticked that box and can keep its head above water. For Tokyo, at least. We will tackle venue cost, legacy, innovation, attractiveness, new disciplines and appeal to youth later. That’s another story.

Towards Tokyo 2020

The proposed changes to the Tokyo 2020 program were reported here on the Inside the Games media platform. Overall there are 68 changes proposed by sports. Inside the Games reported that Tokyo 2020 are set to complete an assessment of the applications by May 5, with the IOC Programme Commission then examining their feedback. The Commission will then make a presentation to the IOC Executive Board in July, when the changes and new events on the programme will be ratified. So, by the time athletes line up at the 2017 world championship the Olympic program for Tokyo 2020 will be set.

In canoe slalom, there is a simple swap, the men’s C2 slalom is removed and replaced by the women’s C1 slalom to create a balance of one canoe and one kayak event for men and women. We knew that was coming.

In sprint the adjustment is more complicated but the result is the same, an equal balance of 6 events for men and 6 events for women. The removal of men’s K2 200m and men’s C1 200m make way for women’s C1 200m and women’s C2 500m. Some people (mainly men) were in denial but we saw this coming too.

Proposed Tokyo 2020 Canoe Sprint Event Program
Men’s Kayak Women’s Kayak Men’s Canoe Women’s Canoe
K1 200m K1 200m C1 1000m C1 200m
K4 500m K1 500m C2 1000m C2 500m
K1 1000m K2 500m
K2 1000m K4 500m
Proposed Tokyo 2020 Canoe Slalom Event Program
Men’s Kayak      (K1M) Women’s Kayak (K1W) Men’s Canoe      (C1M) Women’s Canoe (C1W)

Back to 2017 

It is easy to see why some people in the canoe sprint fraternity might be unhappy with changes to the 2017 world championship program. Put simply they didn’t see the changes coming when they woke from their winter slumber. The goalposts were moved for some events like the men’s K4 which has been shifted from 1000m to 500m or, in some cases events have been removed completely, like the men’s C4 1000m, women’s K2 1000m, men’s C1 500m, men’s C2 and K2 200m. Meanwhile, women’s canoe gain C2 200m, C1 500m and C1 5000m to balance the books. Corresponding changes have also been made to the Under 23 and junior world championship programs.

Overall, there are still twice as many events at the 2017 senior world championship (24) as you will find on the proposed Tokyo 2020 program (12), plus who wants to argue against gender equality, so what’s the problem?

2017 ICF Canoe Sprint Senior World Championship Event Program
Men’s Kayak Women’s Kayak Men’s Canoe Women’s Canoe
K1 200m K1 200m C1 200m C1 200m
K1 500m K2 200m C2 500m C2 200m
K2 500m K1 500m C1 1000m C1 500m
K4 500m K2 500m C2 1000m C2 500m
K1 1000m K4 500m C1 5000m C1 5000m
K2 1000m K1 1000m
K1 5000m K1 5000m

We all have different views on things like which sports and events should be included in everything from the Olympics to national championships, sometimes driven by our personal or national interests. However, it is the method of getting there and telling people which frustrates.

When the season has commenced and some national selections are underway or complete, such late changes cause a ripple effect right through to an athlete, who is the most affected and often the last to know.

Imagine how an athlete will feel when told, “oh sorry, your event is not at the worlds anymore, the ICF has just changed the program and now you’re no longer on the team. Or, the event you have been training for has just been been wiped out”.

Of course, it is a small world in our sport, some people are “in the know”, others find out second or third hand down the track and that is what has hurt the canoeists who have signed a petition to the ICF requesting a reversal and a change back to the old program.

“(we) do not agree with the latest decisions and with the program of the World Championships 2017, which has been submitted by you in the violation of your own rules only 5 months before the World Championships. 

We request to keep the following events: C-1 men 500m, K-2 men 200m, C-2 men 500m, K-2 women 1000m, C-4 men 1000m”.

It looks like a long shot. The 2017 rules (just published) contain the new event program for the world championships, so any protest by federations or athletes is likely to fall off the boat wash before the 200m mark. That said, let’s hope the ICF Board and Technical Committee takes real note of the growing discontent amongst some of its athletes and member federations and gets on the front foot. Meanwhile, the canoeists can perhaps gain some solidarity from race walkers who have a global petition underway within their own  federation (IAAF), reported here.

On the bright side, the season has yet to start. Change is often painful and time heals. The ICF can use the World Cup season to connect with the canoe sprint community and explain the rationale behind the changes. The pending appointment of an ICF Media Manager will no doubt keep the federations, media and other stakeholders better informed.

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