Jessica Fox at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo source www.news.com.au
The International Canoe Federation (ICF) announced on Saturday it would push to have women's C1 slalom and C1 200m sprint included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Jessica Fox was angered ("Fox slams ICF over Olympic plan") by an official ICF news release claiming its 2020 decision should "certainly please" her. The release included a photograph of Fox with arms outstretched after a recent victory (see photo below). Her father, 10-time world champion Richard Fox, has warned the decision not to seek earlier change for the 2016 Rio Games will further highlight the poor deal the sport gives women at the Olympics.
Below the open letter Richard Fox sent to the ICF Board of Directors.
Dear ICF Board of Directors
Thank you for distributing the press release "C1 Women's Canoe Events Proposed for the Tokyo Olympics".
It is positive to see a clear ICF position on the inclusion of more events for women in the Olympic Games. On face value, this can be taken as very good news and we can imagine this shift represents an exciting new opportunity for the Nanjing generation of juniors as well as some yet to start in the sport.
In contrast, high level female athletes continue to be significantly restricted in their access to canoeing events in the Olympic Games relative to men and will have to wait another seven years to see any change. Therefore, assumptions of a positive reaction regarding the potential inclusion of new women's events in Tokyo should be balanced with a reality check.
We should not overlook Rio in promoting a Tokyo solution and the fact that the ICF has chosen to abandon the trend it started lightly in London 2012 where the men's C2 500m was replaced with the women's K1 200m. Instead, the ICF proposes to maintain the status quo of significant gender imbalance until 2020 which means that in Rio 2016, like in London 2012, only 5 out of a total of 16 Olympic gold medals will be available to women.
As it stands, only 1 female athlete per nation is able to compete in a canoe slalom event at the Olympic Games compared to up to 4 men per nation. The men have 3 events to choose from, as opposed to the women who can compete in just 1 event.
The exclusion of women from all canoe class events across both sprint and slalom disciplines at the Olympic Games is a remarkable situation for the ICF to maintain until Tokyo when other sports are clearly shining under the light of increased gender diversity.
The fact is there are 5 canoe class events offered for men across sprint and slalom and not a single women's canoe event, which means our sport will remain firmly at the bottom of the league table when it comes to gender equity measures in Rio 2016.
What has changed in recent years, and this is acknowledged in the ICF article, is the rapid and highly significant growth in participation of C1 women's event at all ICF world championship events. The numbers tell the story and there is clear evidence that women's events are on the rise, particularly when measured against other existing Olympic events. If they are "ready for Rio" now, why wait seven years to do the obvious?
Unlike other sports, the ICF has not taken the opportunity to propose a quota neutral solution for Rio, i.e. include an additional women's event while removing a men's event, because it is too tough. But standing still is certainly not reflected in the ICF slogan, " always moving forward", either. It is a battle of conscious and unconscious bias, where neither side wins until gender balance is achieved.
Jessica Fox not really that happy as the ICF suggests in the above. On her Facebook page: "proposing women's C1 for 2020 Olympics - that's positive but disappointing when we're ready for Rio- that's 7 more years of exclusion & no change since 1972 Olympics."
A bold move to reallocate quotas in Rio would have more clearly demonstrated the ICF's ongoing commitment towards gender equity that it had began in 2010 with the introduction of women's canoe events in world championships and continued in London 2012 with the addition of a women's K1 200m sprint event. But what does a freeze frame from London and deflecting to Tokyo tell us and the world?
On the one hand, the ICF promotes the potential inclusion of women's C1 events in Tokyo 2020 as a positive step towards gender equity in the sport. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the potential effects of continued gender discrimination throughout this Olympic cycle and what standing still represents to those that participate in, invest in and observe our sport in the Olympic Games.
For this reason, a purely positive response to the ICF news release about the inclusion of more women's events in Tokyo 2020 should not be taken for granted. The change is inevitable and anticipated and long overdue. The extended exclusion of female athletes from canoeing events in Rio 2016, however, is not something that can be overlooked in the way the ICF article or the accompanying celebratory photograph implies.