By Elaine Keene, Special to CBC Sports
While the 2012 London Olympics were touted as "the women's Games," dig a little deeper and you will find about 1,100 fewer athlete quota spots for women overall.
Canoeing has one of the poorest gender equality ratios of any Summer Olympic sport, and although female kayakers are allowed to compete in both the sprint and slalom disciplines, female canoeists are kept out of the Games altogether.
For a sport recently in the "bottom five" on the International Olympic Committee's chopping block, with gender equality arguably a contributing factor, failing to immediately address the issue is indefensible.
There are about 36 countries currently competing in and developing women's canoeing, but progression has stalled. The bottom line is that until they achieve Olympic status, women canoeists will be denied the environment for success that their teammates enjoy, and national federations will continue to suppress and obstruct further development with impunity.
The International Canoe Federation (ICF) seems determined to leave female canoeists in the "development" category for as long as possible to avoid confronting the issue of IOC-imposed athlete quotas, which dictate that, to add spots for women, men will lose.
Gender discrimination, unlike most other discrimination in sport, requires additional events and more spots for women. Without affirmative action, generations of neglect and ignorance have erected massive barriers that are exceedingly slow to overcome.
While the IOC has mandated women's commissions to begin the process of change, they have no power to affect change. The ICF's Women's Commission has yet to produce any meaningful recommendations that will take female athletes off the slow track to equality at the world level, let alone the Olympics.
Insisting that new wording in organizational charters that promotes non-discriminatory actions should supersede outdated rules for adding women's events and recommending equal events for women's canoe on the world championship program would be a good start.
Sprint canoe women have only two world-level events and they are totally at the mercy of members who vote whether or not to grant more, even though the current participation levels of women would easily exceed published minimum standards for holding races at worlds. If the ICF cannot claim control over adding women's canoe events to the world championship program, they have no credible development plan to add women's canoe to the Olympics.
Times have changed. The civilized world no longer accepts that women are slow learners, as would be indicated by canoeing's 89-year ban on female canoeists at the Olympics. Smart people recognize that if women aren't at the same elite level as others in our sport, it is likely due to a lack of adequate training opportunity and support rather than intelligence and ability. And they are calling for something to be done about it.
WomenCAN International started a petition in order to increase public awareness about the issue and the sport, and to give a voice to those who want the ICF and the IOC to include women's canoe for Rio 2016. In less than four weeks, the petition was signed by more than 5,600 people from about 60 nations across all five continents. Over 1,000 comments have been included -- many expressing shock and disbelief that in 2013 this petition is even necessary.
The petition has been signed by canoe/kayak athletes worldwide -- males and females who are embarrassed that the sport leaders won't address this critical issue. These athletes care about the preservation of a wonderful sport at the Olympics -- a truly "athletic" sport with great potential for universality and fully in alignment with "Citius, Altius, Fortius." But leadership must act for gender equality and they need to fight for better representation for the sport. Canoeing, for some reason, has far fewer athlete quota spots than some other multi-equipment or multi-discipline Summer Olympic sports.
The petition was also signed by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends who know the personal sacrifice involved with attempting to train to an elite level without adequate support.
And it was signed by those who represent millions more who believe that gender equality is an important issue and that any organization lacking in such basic core values needs to get with the times.
Canoeing officials seem oblivious to the widening disconnect between leadership and membership and stakeholders. Their decision to remove a men's canoe event for 2012 in favour of a women's kayak event was unpopular, further eroded the balance between canoe and kayak and did not address the lack of women in canoe.
For now, they appear to be trying to stay under the radar with their secret, at least until after the IOC makes its final decisions in September 2013 regarding events for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.Elaine Keene has been involved in canoeing for over 25 years, winning several medals at the Canadian Masters Nationals in both canoe and kayak. She is a retired information technology professional.
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