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Olympic canoes - no place for a woman?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Monday, 20 August 2012

'All I am asking is that LOCOG answer two simple questions: Is it discriminatory for there to be five men's Olympic canoe events but none for women? Should that situation continue?' So Samantha Rippington announced the institution of her High Court action for judicial review against the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), adding that LOCOG was in breach of the Equalities Act 2010 (UK) through differential treatment of women and men's sport at Olympics level.

Samantha Rippington went on to observe that, being a canoeist 'who could potentially compete at the Olympics', she had her own answers, 'but why won't the people who are responsible for staging these Olympics give us their answers, too?'

'The people' of whom this world champion sportswoman spoke resisted her claim, asserting they had no obligation to respond because the Equalities Act 'has no jurisdiction over them' and, anyway, LOCOG has no control over what sports, played by whom, are included in the Olympics calendar. Furthermore, not only was the London Olympics programme long since settled, 'what sports and by whom' is already well on the way to being determined for Rio's 2016 Olympics. Although one year remains for final decisions to be made, critics assert that women's canoeing (not 'kayaking') is not a sport that should exercise the Rio decision-makers' time.


So, who are these people?

In 2012, an observer might be excused for thinking the line-up is a bizarre joke, published on the internet to provoke an outcry. However, that is not so: the listing of members is set out in all seriousness. Chair and deputy chair are Sebastian Coe and Keith Mills, both previously members of the London Bid Committee. All but one of the additional sixteen board members is male. The sole exception is Anne Windsor. There is certainly room for Equalities Act action here, a prospect which follows in relation to sporting organisations generally.

Australia's Women on Boards (WOB) makes the point. Albeit Australia's Olympics team 'will bring home 35 medals from London … more than half (20) won by our female athletes – three gold, nine silver and eight bronze … none of the National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) governing [the] sports [in which these medals were principally won] has more than 25 per cent female directors'.

'Canoeing' is listed by WOB as one of the sports featuring in the women's Olympic medal tally and governed by fewer than 25 per cent female directors. Yet this term, now used generically to cover canoeing and kayaking, does not resolve the claim at the heart of Samantha Rippington's court action.

Kayaking and canoeing are not the same. As participants and observers well know, canoeing and kayaking differ in the type of paddles used and, generally, in the sitting position of kayaker and canoeist. As even a casual eye on the Olympic calendar instantly confirms, the Olympic programme makes clear the exclusion of women from the sport of canoeing:

'The programme for London 2012 will consist of 12 events, eight for men and four for women. The 200m events will be an Olympic feature in London for the first time in the Women's and Men's K1 and the Men's Cl. Women will race over 500m in the K1, K2 and K4 and Men will race over 1000m in the K1, K2, K4 and C1 and C2.'


'K' followed by a number represents a kayaking event, K1 denoting that one kayaker is involved. 'C' followed by a number represents a canoeing event, C1 denoting the involvement of one canoeist.

Samantha Rippington is pursuing no willow-the-wisp in her bid for a place in a canoe at future Olympics.

Nevertheless, she has her critics. There is, reports Canada's Royal Canoe Club, 'mounting concern' within canoeing circles 'about the damage [the action] may inflict on perceptions of canoeing'. Whether this means that the critics believe canoeing is 'masculine' and women's entry will 'spoil' this vision, or a growing awareness that women are not only competent but champions in the sport will undercut its illusion of (sole) masculine prowess is not clear. Does the prospect of a woman in a canoe – rather than or in addition to a kayak – mean that the intrepid vision of 'man against the elements' portrayed in canoeing events as they currently stand will fall by the wayside? Is this just one more male bastion under threat of feminisation?

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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