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At the Tokyo Olympics, gender equity is achieved one single-bladed paddle at a time

Australian canoe great Jessica Fox made history Thursday with her fourth Olympic medal. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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TOKYO — Asked whether she had a favorite of the four Olympic medals she has won across three Summer Games, Australian canoeing legend Jessica Fox didn’t hesitate: the gold she won Thursday at Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre, not just for its color but for the history it carries.

Fox became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s canoe slalom Thursday when she bulldozed the artificial whitewater course in Tokyo with a clean run in 105.04 seconds, besting silver medalist Mallory Franklin of Britain by 3.64 seconds and bronze medalist Andrea Herzog of Germany by 6.09 seconds and making history in the meantime. Women have competed in kayak slalom since the event was made a permanent part of the Olympic program in 1992 for both men and women. But canoe slalom hasn’t been an option until these Games.

Its addition is the product of the International Olympic Committee’s push toward gender parity at the Olympics.

Nearly 49 percent of the almost 11,000 athletes competing in Tokyo are women, according to the IOC, an increase from 45.6 percent at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and from 44.2 percent at the 2012 London Games. The IOC does not offer data on the participation of nonbinary athletes.

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Canoe slalom didn’t exclude women because of the physical demands of the sport. The difference between kayak and canoe is slight, as long as you’re already strong enough to dodge plastic poles and navigate a thin boat around whirlpools with a running clock. In kayak, competitors navigate whitewater courses while seated and use a double-bladed paddle to paddle on alternate sides; in canoe slalom, classified as C1, competitors use a single-bladed paddle, steering while sitting on their knees with their legs tucked under the body.

And at the Olympics, women were simply an afterthought.

“For a long time, the women’s C1 wasn’t even a world championship event. That only came into place in 2010 after a lot of lobbying, pushing, [saying] it’s about gender equality, gender parity at the Olympics,” said Fox, who owns 15 International Canoe Federation world championship titles. “So there was a lot of lobbying to get us into the Olympics, and it meant that we had to lose a men’s event, which was really challenging for our sport, the men’s C2 unfortunately.”

The ICF lost three events across slalom and sprint to make room for women’s races in 2020.

Fox won her three other Olympic medals competing in a kayak: a silver in the London 2012 Games, a bronze in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 and a bronze earlier this week in Tokyo. But to come out on top of a dramatic canoe slalom final in Tokyo felt like a win twice over.

“It feels like just a rite of passage,” said Franklin, the silver medalist. “Within C1, we came into the world and then it was like building that we were actually starting to be able to produce finals where you had to do good runs and things like that. The whole class has slowly been building. And then to be sat here, it feels right. And then to produce that kind of final makes it feel like we should be here, which is really cool.”

Fox, Franklin and the other 20 women of varying nationalities competing in canoe slalom in Tokyo marked the milestone with a picture together before the Opening Ceremonies. They weren’t the only women reveling in the moment.

“In the sport of surfing, in the time that I’ve been competing on the championship tour — it’s been 11 years — I’ve seen so much growth and improvement and progression in the equality of this sport,” said Carissa Moore, a U.S. gold medalist in surfing, one of the four new sports that debuted in Tokyo, all of which have events for men and women.

“We started off with, maybe, $15,000 for first place? And we got to a point where they brought us up to $100,000, which is equal with the men. . . . [Organizers] make a decision every day based on conditions, who gets to surf, and usually when the conditions went bad, they would send us out. And it was so demoralizing, but now we get the same equal opportunity as the men.”

They are Olympians. They are mothers. And they no longer have to choose.

Moore cherished the chance to represent her sport on the Olympic stage. Parity among athletes and events is significant not just because women crave the equal opportunity to compete but also because exposure increases awareness, participation and ultimately funding to a sport. Getting to the Olympics is invaluable, especially for niche events.

Female athletes also often feel the added benefit of serving as role models.

“Young girls drop out of sports at a much younger age than young boys do,” said Valerie Arioto, the silver medal-winning first baseman from USA Softball, “so having them be able to see us on TV repping our sport, repping our country — just putting on a good show — it’s just so exciting for the future of women in our sport and women in general.”

Athlete participation, of course, is just one way to measure the gender parity at the Olympics. The gloss of equality in the Olympic Village doesn’t buff away the gender-related mishaps these Games have had.

How many athletes participate in the Olympics, and other key numbers from the Games

The head of Japan’s organizing committee resigned in February after claiming women talk too much at meetings. The week of the Opening Ceremonies, Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates drew ire after publicly ordering Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to attend the Opening Ceremonies after she said she would not do so. In June, the IOC reversed its stance on prohibiting nursing mothers to bring their infant children to the Games only after the policy received intense public pushback from prominent athletes.

And the IOC itself is run mostly by men: Women make up just 33.3 percent of the organization’s executive board.

But at the ground level, change is visible in the increased number of women walking around the Olympic Village and featured on prime-time broadcasts around the world and in the 22 smiling faces of the women’s canoe group picture.

“I’m so proud of all the women who race,” Fox said. “Sitting in the bottom [of the course], I was just thinking, ‘Wow, this is an amazing final to be a part of and I’m so proud the girls are racing for it,’ and they’re going for it and racing hard and they’re tight, you know? They set the bar, Andrea and Mallory, so I knew I had to be on my best game and, yeah. Very, very special today.”