Widespread changes proposed for the 2020 Olympic games canoe/kayak program

mens kayak start

Men's 2012 1000m semifinal start, photo flickr.com/sumofmarc

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) have approved a race program with some striking changes for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. These changes still need to be ratified by the International Olympic Association (IOC) but it is hard to see why they would reject them. However, it is easy to see why the paddlesport community is divided over these changes. This is a very controversial subject so we will try and break down what the changes are, who they affect and whether the sport needed to take this action.

Why change? The primary driving force behind the changes are to make the games gender equal. For some reason, canoeing is one of the few remaining sports that doesn't have the same number of medals and places for men and women, a crazy situation that had to change. Adding to that, in the last Olympic cycle we were perilously close to being kicked out of the games. This was due, in a large part, to kayaking having an unequal amount of medal events split between men and women (11 to 5 across Sprint and Slalom). This obviously reflects poorly on the sport. Therefore the ICF had to make some pretty serious changes in an attempt to keep our Olympic status. (Whether Olympic status is worth having is another argument explored well here – although we would argue that it is!)

What are the changes? There are now six men’s and six women’s events in the sprint program with eleven athlete spaces for each. Slalom features an even two and two split. Here are two tables so you can see the difference.

2012 Sprint 200m 500m 1000m
Men K1, K2, C1 - K1,K2,K4,C1,C2
Women K1 K1, K2, K4 -
2020 Sprint 200m 500m 1000m
Men K1 K4 K1, K2, C1, C2
Women K1, C1 K1, K2, K4, C2 -
2012 Slalom 2020 Slalom
Men K1, C1, C2 K1,C1
Women K1 K1, C1


This all sounds good in principle, it superficially seems logical and fair, however there are a number of factors which complicate matters. The best way to show these problems is to go though the main changes: so here we go!

Women’s Canoe added The main changes include women’s C1 200m and C2 500m being introduced for the first time. This has caused significant controversy because many people feel that women’s canoe events are simply not good enough to be showcased at the Olympic games. We think that this is a valid point, at this time women’s canoe is a significant minority sport with few countries boasting world class athletes. And the numbers back this up argument up. At the 2015 world championships in the men's C1 200m there was 3.3% difference between the gold medal time and last place in the final. In the women's C1 200m there was a 7.7% difference. This translates to a weaker sport and a weaker spectacle for the audience - who doesn't love a close race? Although it could be argued that Olympic status will translate to depth in the women’s canoe events it doesn't seem likely that this will happen in time for 2020.

Men's C1 200m removed This seems a shame. Kayak events have managed to keep one 200m event in which allows a different type of athlete to go to the games. In terms of Canoe events it is also the most watch-able to the average person tuning into the games.

Men's K2 200m removed This is, in our opinion, the greatest disappointment across all the changes. The K2 200m was arguably the best event to watch for both kayak fans and the average punter. It is fast, exciting and incredibly watchable. When rumour of it being removed broke there was an outpouring of public support with over 2000 people signing and commenting on a petition to keep it in. The one fact that is stopping us from being too disappointed is the inclusion of the K4 500m.

Men's K4 1000m swapped for K4 500m This is a hard one, on the one hand the K4 1000m event is a fantastic event and my personal favorite to watch, but by the same token the K4 500m could be the most exciting race of the 2020 program. It should have all the explosive speed of the K2 200 but the extra 300m will give more time for the race to change and crews to fade or come through strong at the end. It also gives the K2 200m guys somewhere to go as many of their skills would be perfectly suited to a K4 500m race. In short, its a huge shame that both the K4 1000 and the K2 200m have been removed but as an alternative under these circumstances the K4 500m seems like a good choice. We're already looking forward to watching this in 2020!

Slalom Men's C2 swapped for Women’s C1 Given the athlete and medal quotas it seems like this change was unavoidable. It seems like a huge shame that there will be no crew boats of any type in the slalom 2020 Olympic games.

Conclusion The first thing to note is that the Olympic program is hopelessly complicated and political. With sprint / slalom and kayak / canoe, there are effectively four different sports all vying for athlete and medal quotas. On the one hand this shows how brilliantly diverse our sport is but to what extent are we watering down the competition? Whereas at the 2015 World Sprint championships there were 86 countries competing with 1029 athletes; at the 2012 games there were 47 countries with only 250 athletes. This dilution seriously raises the question of whether we should have separate governing bodies for each sport. In reality, sprint kayaking is about as similar to rowing as it is to canoeing or even slalom! Although that would be throwing away a huge part of our diversity, in terms of the Olympics it would be a better event if we could increase the number of athletes in each event. It would make for infinitely better viewing than watching athletes floating down a heat because everyone makes a final. In an ideal world we could conjure up  athlete places and more events from the IOC but unfortunately that looks impossible. In the circumstances the changes that have been made seem to make sense, although there is an element of trying to please everyone at the expense of protecting our sport as a whole. To sum it up in one sentence we would say “It could have been worse”. This doesn't mean that we are happy with the changes, it seems laughable that quality events like the K4 1000m and K2 200m have been replaced by women’s canoe events. Although we recognise and fully support the need for gender equality, we feel that a women’s K2 200m would be better suited as a replacement because it's already an exciting, well attended race on the international circuit. With the new program it looks like we will manage to avoid being kicked out of the Olympics on equality grounds but we need to be careful we don't get booted out for being boring!

So what would our ideal Olympics look like? This is obviously a hard question but we will give it a go! (Full disclosure, we're hopelessly biased towards Sprint Kayaking). We reckon that an ideal program is not only balanced between numbers of men and women’s events but also in terms of the events themselves. There's no reason why women can't do 1000m! Additionally we want to show the sport in its best light, so all the events need to be exciting for people watching on the TV to hopefully inspire them to give it a go. K1 200m relay K2 200m K1 1000m K2 1000m K4 1000m K1 5000m K1 omnium 5K has the potential to be a thrilling spectator spectacle that could push kayaking into the mainstream. This years marathon world champs showed how well we can show our sport off with just a bit of investment in some camera equipment. The omnium would be a multi event competition, with possible events being knock out 200m racing, 1000m, 5000m and 200m. There's two fewer events there which could either go to slalom, or we could keep the number of events down to try and up the number of athletes per event. Feel free to comment what your ideal Olympic program would be.

Leave a comment