Nearly 30 years after canoeing made its Olympic debut, women finally have a shot at gold.
On Tuesday, 22 women made history as they navigated the manufactured rapids of a white-water course in the slalom competition, the first time women appeared in an Olympic canoeing event. Eighteen of them are moving on to the semifinals, which begin at 1 a.m. Eastern on Thursday. The final is slated to start at 2:55 a.m.
During qualifying heats on Tuesday, Britain’s Mallory Franklin, the 2017 world champion, set the fastest time, at 105.06 seconds. Jessica Fox of Australia, a 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 generally have had less opportunity,” Franklin, who is considered a pioneer in the sport, told The Guardian this month. “There is a lot of history surrounding this. I am appreciative that I am able to be the person creating that history, even if it doesn’t actually change my job.”
Slalom kayakers use two-bladed paddles and sit with their legs in front of them. In canoeing, paddlers use a one-bladed paddle and sit with their legs under them. Paddlers navigate 25 gates down the white-water course, six of which are upstream.
Canoeing at the Tokyo Games will be contested in two main disciplines — slalom and sprint. Slaloming, for both men and women, concludes Thursday and Friday, and sprinting, which includes 200-meter, 500-meter and 1,000-meter head-to-head races on flat-water courses, begins on Monday. In the sprint event, athletes kneel on one knee in their canoes as they paddle. The American Nevin Harrison, 17, is expected to contend for a medal in canoe sprint.
Excluding women from sports has a long Olympic history. On Wednesday, Katie Ledecky became the first female swimmer to win a 1,500-meter freestyle race at the Games. It had been a men’s event since 1904. In 1984, women competed in a marathon for the first time, nearly 100 years after men first raced the event at the inaugural Games in Athens in 1896. Women first competed in the Olympics in the 1900 Games in Paris.