Almost 30 years after canoeing made its Olympic debut, women finally have a shot at gold.
On Tuesday, 22 women made history by navigating the artificial rapids of a whitewater course during the slalom competition, the first time women have competed in an Olympic canoe event. Eighteen of them are heading to the semifinals, which begin Thursday at 1 a.m. EST. The final is scheduled to start at 2:55 a.m.
During the qualifying heats on Tuesday, Britain’s Mallory Franklin, 2017 world champion, set the best time, at 105.06 seconds. Jessica Fox of Australia, four-time canoe slalom world champion, and Evy Leibfarth, a 17-year-old from North Carolina, will also compete on Thursday. Leibfarth is the youngest competitor in the event.
“Women have generally had fewer opportunities,” said Franklin, considered a pioneer in the sport. told the Guardian this month. “There is a lot of history around it. I appreciate being able to be the person who creates this story, even if it doesn’t really change my job.
Slalom kayakers use two-bladed paddles and sit with their legs in front of them. In canoeing, paddlers use a single-blade paddle and sit with their legs under them. Paddlers pass through 25 gates on the whitewater course, including six upstream.
Canoeing at the Tokyo Games will be contested in two main disciplines: slalom and sprint. The slalom, for men and women, ends Thursday and Friday, and the sprint, which includes head-to-head races of 200 meters, 500 meters and 1,000 meters on flat water courses, begins Monday. In the sprint event, athletes kneel on one knee in their canoes as they paddle. American Nevin Harrison, 17, is expected to challenge for a medal in the canoe sprint.
The exclusion of women from sport has a long Olympic history. On Wednesday, Katie Ledecky became the first swimmer to win a 1,500 meter freestyle race at the Games. It had been a men’s event since 1904. In 1984, women took part in a marathon for the first time, nearly 100 years after men first ran the event at the inaugural Athens Games in 1896. Women first competed in the Olympics at the 1900 Games in Paris.