2015 ICF World Championships Slalom

Rio Olympic programme proposal: A STEP BACK

gender equality canoe kayak sprint slalom equity olympic games charter icf ioc sportscene women men gender balance

[SPORTSCENE received this article/letter from an athlete who wishes to remain anonymous for reasons as explained in the below.]

I have chosen to write this article on an anonymous basis. Not because I don’t believe in what I’m writing and not because I’m afraid of standing by my point of view. I want people to step back, have a think and look at it in a different light. I feel the arguments that are being put forward on social media are getting too personal. The emotions are running high and I feel the sport as a whole seems to be missing the point.

All I will say is that I am an Olympian, preparing another Olympic cycle and I compete in slalom. I do not train nor compete in any C boats.

Canoeing is an Olympic sport. Canoe slalom and sprint are the Olympic disciplines of canoeing. What does it mean to be an Olympic sport? It means a lot of things but from a practical point of view it means the sport signs the Olympic charter. By choosing to be Olympic, canoeing chooses to respect this charter. The international governing body, in this case the ICF, is there to make sure the governance and policies of the Olympic disciplines are in parallel with this charter. And this is where canoeing has a problem... Within the ICF’s current proposal of the Rio Olympic canoeing programme, our sport is in breach of principle 6 of the Olympic charter:

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”

How are we all in breach of this principle? Well, our international body believes it is ok to propose the same Olympic programme as in London, even though the landscape of our sport has immensely changed and continues to change for the better. Women’s canoeing has been integrated into our World Championship programmes and has been developed successfully internationally. Women’s canoeing now has a sufficient number of nations and level of development to integrate the Olympic programme with ease. In slalom this was clearly observed in the numbers at the start line of the World Championships in Prague this year, not to mention the junior and Under 23 world championships or at the canoe sprint worlds.

This fact is also strongly acknowledged by the President of the ICF, Jose Perurena, in the recent press release from Lima:

“Women’s C1 in both Sprint and Slalom has improved dramatically over the last couple of years and the proposal to include it in the Olympic programme will further support its future development.”

Having read the whole press release and if I was to translate this statement and my understanding of the ICF’s message into more cynical words, I would read: Yes, C1 women you have improved, but we are going to continue to discriminate against you in absolute terms on the basis of gender for another 11 years until 2024 and remain in breach of the principle 6 of the Olympic charter in the proposed Olympic Rio programme. Mmmmm… Not a great message ICF and not one I am willing to accept.

If we choose to be Olympic, then we choose to take on the Olympic values. The choice taken by our international governing body to discriminate against women for another 7 to 11 years, does not reflect the Olympic values, or those of the ICF Statutes or the ICF charter for women in canoeing. 11 Olympic medal events for male athletes in canoeing against 5 for female athletes does not constitute gender equity by any stretch of the imagination, especially if the Olympic programme remains as imbalanced in Rio as it was in London and for all the Olympics before.

Sport is part of society and if anything Olympic sport is meant to show the way/set the example. How is the ICF doing this by choosing to propose to the IOC an Olympic programme based on gender discrimination? What message is the ICF sending to the world and not just the world of canoeing? Olympic sports have a responsibility that goes beyond that of their own sport. How is the ICF “inspiring a generation” (the motto from London) when they are clearly choosing not to give male and female athletes the same opportunities in their proposed 2016 programme? And how can they be so insulting as to suggest that female athletes would be happy with a proposal that reinforces the discrimination for a further 7 to 11 years.

Canoeing was ranked in the bottom 5 Olympic sports after London 2012. What does this mean? Our sport is in no way “safe” within the Olympic programme. One of the main reasons for that ranking was the gender imbalance within our Olympic programme, of course there are other reasons that must also be attended to. The winter Olympics will be starting in just under 3 months’ time and the IOC is going to come under huge pressure from the world media over the new “discrimination law” that the host nation has passed on homosexuals. The law is in breach of the same principle 6 of the Olympic charter that the proposed Rio canoeing Olympic programme is in breach of. The world media and many athletes are/will be putting pressure on the IOC to uphold this principle 6. The IOC can debate that Russia was awarded the Olympic hosting before this law was brought into place. What will become harder and harder to justify for the IOC is Olympic sports who don’t uphold the principle 6, or the Olympic charter in general within their Olympic programme, like canoeing.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this may come as a shock but we are on the Olympic ejection seat and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or disillusioned. The ICF are being foolish and if they continue to choose to ignore the facts that are put them. I can safely say that our sport will not have an Olympic future once the IOC does its post Games review of Rio 2016 if we are to follow through with what the ICF is currently proposing as a programme.

I spoke to a group of friends about the issue and we came to this conclusion:
“In some countries women aren’t allowed to drive. In canoeing, according to the ICF and it is 24 male and 3 female board members, women aren’t allowed to have the same opportunities as men to compete at the Olympics. What’s the difference? None. There is just one big fat word for it: DISCRIMINATION.”

As a sport, as people, as societies, we can’t accept the ICF’s proposal. We can no longer justify an Olympic programme with such high gender imbalance and even the ICF recognise this. But by saying “not yet”, they are not only consciously choosing continued discrimination for another 7 to 13 years, they are also playing poker with the sport as a whole and its Olympic status. And I don’t believe they have a Royal Flush in their hands!

Gender equity is not a debate, it’s an obligation. Socially and morally we have to do what is right no matter how hard those decisions are for everyone involved. Legally, we don’t really have a choice. If the case was brought in front of courts of many of our countries that have laws protecting against gender discrimination, the ICF would more than struggle to justify its current proposal and the professional restriction it puts on female athletes. On an Olympic point of view, we have signed up to something and whether we like it or not, the Olympic charter is not a menu. If we want to move beyond our current “eject seat”, we have to start moving the sport forward now, today; not tomorrow and definitely not in 7 years’ time because by then it will be too late. This is our reality, and if we continue to bury our heads in the sand we have some very dark days ahead of us.