Kayakers Fight to Keep Sport Afloat at Sydney Games in 2000

It's one thing to paddle a kayak twice a day in the dead of winter, bare hands turned blue by the 36-degree water, if you know it may pay off in Olympic glory. It's quite another if your event may not even be held in the next Olympics.

Such is the situation for hundreds of the world's best whitewater kayakers and canoeists waging a last-ditch effort to reinstate whitewater events in the Olympics that Sydney, Australia, will host in 2000.

Last fall the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Sydney Organising Committee (SOCOG) announced that whitewater events had been deep-sixed for 2000.

Sydney organizers say the $9.2 million price tag for building a whitewater course is prohibitive, and they cite logistical complications. Also, Sydney wants to limit the number of athletes to 10,200 and keep all of the final events close to downtown. "Apart from the soccer, we don't want any event that's more than 30-minutes' drive from Homebush, the Olympic zone," says Rich Gratton, a spokesman for SOCOG.

Since the decision was announced, slalom paddlers worldwide have been lobbying for reinstatement. One of their tools is an international petition drive on the Internet. "We are hanging by a skinny thread," says two-time US Olympian and reigning world champion canoeist Davey Hearn, as he paddles down the Potomac. "No one wanted to see this lost without a fight."

Clinton and Olympic whitewater

Today in Washington, American canoeists and kayakers are hoping to get a boost during the 11th Annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day. Female paddlers are working the day's luncheons and receptions to lobby sports figures like tennis legend Billie Jean King and swimmer Janet Evans to sign the petition.

Jennifer Hearn, US kayak champion and wife of Davey Hearn, is leading the paddlers' charge in Washington. She will make their case before President Clinton today.

"No event is guaranteed in any Olympic games," Ms. Hearn acknowledges. "If the 100-meter dash, for example, became unpopular, it could be dropped."

But boaters say whitewater sports have mushroomed in popularity in the past five years in the US. The whitewater industry estimates that 9 percent of the adult population of the US now participates each year in a whitewater activity. They project that number will grow 9 percent by 2000.

European leaders weigh in

In western Europe there is even more enthusiasm for the sports. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has gotten involved in the reinstatement effort. And according to the French Embassy, French President Jacques Chirac was so incensed on learning of Sydney's decision that he ordered his minister of sports to mount a letter-writing effort to counterparts in other countries. Mr. Chirac has reportedly offered to subsidize the cost of constructing a course, but SOCOG says it has received nothing in writing.

Whitewater boaters' best hope could come from the IOC, which may step in and insist the events go forward. "The door is still open to the event," says Sylvie Espagnac, an IOC spokeswoman. "The program for the Sydney games could change." At their meeting March 6, IOC officials will reexamine the feasibility of adding whitewater events.

"If they insist, we have to recognize that the IOC owns the Olympics," says Gratton.

Meanwhile, livelihoods are at stake. Irish slalom canoeist Mike Corcoran earns an annual government stipend and training benefits for representing his country in the Olympics. Benefits for him and others will dry up next year if the event is cancelled.

"The Olympics are the pinnacle of your career," Mr. Corcoran says. "I'm lucky I got to compete in two Olympics ... but for the kids coming up today, I feel sorry for them."

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