For me the Olympics is all about creating a platform to showcase the abilities of the world’s top athletes across a range of sports. I think the current disciplines represented for kayaking do this very well. Flatwater sprint is kayaking in its purest form and rewards physical strength, power and technique. It would be nice to see some longer races included in the programme to demonstrate the prowess of more endurance based athletes but on the whole it does a good job of providing a spectator friendly, easy to understand event where the fastest paddler always wins. Slalom is also a fantastic demonstration of paddlesport where competitors must combine athleticism with whitewater skill in order to come out on top. At the Olympics there are many issues such as the one-boat per nation rule where you can have a French 1,2,3 at the world championships but only one is allowed to compete at the Olympics which is drastically unfair and cheapens the value of an Olympic medal where participation from under-represented nations is prioritised over allowing those who have committed to training to the level of the best in the world to compete. This and other problems such as the quality of an artificial course are issues for a separate rant, however the concept of canoe/kayak slalom as a test of paddling ability is a very good one and therefore, in my opinion, deserves a spot in the Olympics. Boater-X is not and there are several reasons why this is so.
The point of an Olympic competition is to find and reward the best athlete in a sport. Whilst every athlete has their good and bad days at an Olympic competition the outside influences that affect who can win should be kept to a minimum and the result should, as much as possible, be down to the performance of each individual athlete. Whist competitors are competing against to and next to each other they should not be allowed to directly influence another person’s performance. In Boater-X there are too many influences outside of an individual’s control that can affect their chances to win. I have yet to compete in a boatercross where I believe every start position is completely equal. The nature of whitewater means there are often very narrow current lines of faster water rarely large enough for 4 boats at once to be in equally moving water, this is particularly important off the start where competitors are neck-and-neck. Later in the race it is possible for all athletes to be on the fastest line, but initially a great advantage is given to the athlete whose start position is in the fastest water.
A ramp-style start is the current favourite of boater-cross events and whilst it does seem fairer than starting in the water on an eddyline etc. it also causes problems. Most artificial slalom courses…the now usual site of an Olympic whitewater event are very narrow. To have 4 boats starting at once requires the boats to be very close together off the start and immediately offers unfairness and bias. Inside paddlers may not be able to get paddles in the water due to having boats on either side of them and outside paddlers may be forced into plastic bollards and eddies due to the narrowness and design nature of Olympic slalom courses. Say the first ‘move’ of the race is an upstream gate on river right. This means the paddler starting furthest to river left has to pass and cross all 3 paddlers to their right before making the gate first whereas the paddler who starts furthest river right has only to edge their nose in front of the others to be the first one through the gate.
Blocking and spinning out other paddlers is part and parcel of every boater cross and something that provides great entertainment for the viewers and extra challenge for the paddlers. However, how would you feel if your 4-year dream that you had spent 20+hrs a week training for and dedicated your whole life towards was upset when someone else capsized in front of you and blocked your course through the Olympic final? All these things that make boater-cross such a fun and exciting event and the reasons why I love to compete in it are the very reasons why it is not suitable for Olympic competition. The idea of years of hard work and training, and let’s face it thousands of pounds of investment and sponsorship being thrown away by matters completely outside the athlete’s control is heart-breaking.
There are few, if any, boater-cross athletes
To my knowledge there is nobody in the world who currently trains seriously and exclusively for Boater-X. Right now the ‘sport’ is split into two camps: extreme boater-x where whitewater paddlers compete (generally for fun) in a boater-x on a challenging section of whitewater alongside a more serious event such as an extreme slalom or downriver race (examples such as North Fork Championship, Sjoa River Festival, King of the Alps, Voss Festival etc. etc.) the boater-x is generally considered a light-hearted competition where paddlers involved don’t take the result too seriously as they know and accept all the random factors as mentioned above. The second is the new breed of boater-x that has recently emerged on the international slalom circuit. I have not personally experienced any of these events but what it appears to be as an outsider is slalom athletes jumping into plastic boats and racing each other down the same course they race for slalom with a few obstacles on the way. In neither example is boater-x the prime focus of the competitors involved either they are whitewater paddlers attending an event or festival to catch up with friends/paddle fun and challenging whitewater with boater-x being a fun event to get involved in or they are serious slalom athletes being encouraged to partake in a new sport to promote it and try and get it included in the Olympic programme. I’d be very interested to see number of hrs spent training for boater-x vs. number of hrs spent training for slalom in the latest ‘world championship’ event. Can you imagine Usain Bolt deciding to race the marathon just because he happened to be at the Olympics and it was an event he could compete in? True Olympic athletes spend years dedicated to training and racing an event; to see the calibre of athletes that should be participating at an Olympics we need people dedicated to and training specifically for this discipline otherwise it cheapens the whole value of an Olympic medal and the Olympic dream and experience.
What is a better option?
There are so many areas of paddlesport that would make a much better choice for Olympic representation than Boater-X. My personal favourite to see included in the Olympics would be Canoe Polo because it offers something different to the two current disciplines...a team sport, a combination of skill and athleticism, entertaining contact sport with an easy-to understand concept (put the ball in the net). However, polo is unlikely due to the high cost-per-medal for athletes (each team being min 7 people I believe including subs) and one of the main costs for the Olympics is housing and feeding all the athletes…hence why they are looking to introduce and event that would just involve people already there i.e. slalom athletes. Marathon racing as mentioned above would be a great addition to the flat-water programme with little extra cost in facilities. Freestyle and Wildwater Racing are both options that would utilise the whitewater course already built for slalom, which would help justify the cost of building the course. Freestyle would require a well-built feature on the course and is quite subjective in the judging but is a great spectator sport, even if it is sometimes hard for the public to understand. However, it really is a great demonstration of paddling skill and boat control requiring a lot of effort to be good at and already has a well-established competition structure and world-championship events. Wildwater Racing is simple to understand and a good demonstration of whitewater skill and boat handling coupled with high-levels of physical conditioning. However, the race on an artificial slalom course is very short often around 40s and as a wildwater racing purist I would be sad to see it included in the Olympics and the sport moving to artificial courses and away from natural rivers.
So although there are issues with a lot of disciplines being included in the Olympics I think there are many that have a much stronger case than boater-x for inclusion in the Olympic programme. Disciplines with a large participation rate, well-established rules and a history of high-level international events such as world championships and world cups. Are we prepared to sacrifice the standard and integrity of Olympic events just to see more kayaking in the schedule? Do we want to cheapen the athletic achievement of so many athletes by including an event that is mainly a publicity stunt?