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Canoeing celebrates successful Olympics but issue of equality still needs to be addressed

08/12/2012 06:50 EDT | Updated 10/12/2012 05:12 EDT
WINDSOR, England - Packed crowds. A popular, explosive new discipline. Fiercer competition from across the globe. Even a new icon in British kayaker Ed McKeever, the so-called "Usain Bolt on water."

On the face of it, canoe sprint had everything going for it at the London Olympics, leaving the sport in good shape heading into the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

There is one thorny issue, however, that still needs to be addressed — equality.

The Olympic sprint regatta at Dorney Lake had eight men's events but only four for women. The ratio was even worse at the canoe slalom — with three male disciplines (C-1, C-2 and K-1) and just the one for women (K-1).

Just a week before the London Games, Samantha Rippington, a canoeist who has competed for Britain at world championship level, was preparing to launch a High Court challenge against Olympic organizers claiming there was a lack of equality in the Olympic program.

She believes women are being discriminated against because there are currently no canoeing events for them in either sprint or slalom at the Olympics, just in kayaking.

Australia women's canoe coach Myriam Fox-Jersusalami also said canoeing had "failed" because there wasn't the same amount of male and female competitors at the Olympics.

According to Jose Perurena Lopez, the president of the International Canoe Federation, that won't be the case for a while.

"It's clear that for Olympic Games in the future, you want sport to have the same equality. It will work," he told The Associated Press. "I don't know (about) 2020, but sure in 2024 there will be equality. In sprint and slalom.

"It's not possible that we continue without including ladies in all the events in the Olympic Games."

Perurena Lopez said it was the ICF's "full and first priority" to introduce the women's canoe single (C-1) to the Olympic slalom program, if not for Rio then in time for the 2020 Games.

But he added that it would take time for C-1 to grow enough in sprint to justify inclusion for an Olympics.

"The problem for us is also the quota (of events in canoeing)," Perurena Lopez said. "We have a very small quota because in Barcelona in 1992, we introduced the slalom in the Olympic Games. After Atlanta (in 1996), the IOC wanted to take the slalom out but we persuaded them not to.

"They agreed, but only if we use our quota for sprint and slalom combined. We need more quota if we want to include more women. Without that, it's difficult."

Perurena Lopez said the sport was otherwise in a good position, with crowds of 20,000 pouring into the Dorney Lake venue on each of the regatta's six days. It came a year after a strong turnout for the world championship in Szeged, Hungary — a country where canoeing is the national sport.

Hungary and Germany again topped the regatta's medals table but the introduction of the 200 metres to the Olympics for the London Games has meant the sport's two traditional powers no longer have it all their own way.

While Germans and Hungarians dominated the longer disciplines (1,000 metres for men and 500 metres for women), the 200 has witnessed competitors from countries like Britain, Spain and New Zealand come to the fore.

One of the telling results of the regatta was Lisa Carrington of New Zealand overcoming Hungarian great Natasa Douchev-Janics, a three-time Olympic gold medallist , to win the K-1 — the only women's 200 event. It was the first canoeing medal won by a woman from New Zealand.

The men's 200 events were won by paddlers from Britain (McKeever in K-1), Russia (K-2) and Ukraine (Yuri Cheban in C-1). No Hungarian or German made the podium in any of those three events.

"Before, we had 1,000 metres and 500 metres, and normally the same athletes competed (for the medals) in both," Perurena Lopez said. "But now we have totally different athletes. There are more medals for more countries, more possibilities to concentrate the athletes on one distance and to specialize.

"It was marvelous for the crowd. I will push for more events in the 200. The 1,000 for men and 500 for women are our traditional distance but the 200 is more important for the television and more exciting for the spectators."

For the moment, the face of the 200 is McKeever — now officially the world's quickest paddler. He races at around 20 kph (13 mph) and makes three strokes per second.

"I can't even move my arms that fast, let alone doing it in a boat," said Brendan Purcell, McKeever's coach. "The guy is like a block of granite."

The nickname "Usain Bolt on Water" — given to him by the British media over the past year — hasn't sat well with McKeever, a shy and quiet trainee accountant from southwest England. McKeever plans to celebrate by "going to the seaside" for a holiday before getting married next month.

But he should stay on for the Rio Games and be at the forefront of a Britain squad that could start to threaten the stranglehold of the Germans and Hungarians after winning two golds, a silver and a bronze across the slalom and the sprint over the past fortnight.

"If we keep pushing forward and developing, I think we can become the leading canoeing nation in the world," McKeever said. "Our 200-meter squad is winning medals at every event and the squad as a whole is improving all the time. We can take a lot of encouragement from these games."

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