June 14, 2006

UltraAmateur Sport

A few months ago I agreed to become a member of the organizing committee for the Medavie Blue Cross Canoe Challenge. The Canoe Challenge is a charity event that has raised over a million dollars (Canadian) for the IWK Health Centre Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Atlantic.

The Canoe Challenge is an interesting example of a very popular kind of event, the sport-based charity fund raiser. The basic structure of the sport-based charity fund raiser is as follows. Individuals or teams sign up for a sporting event in support of a good cause. They go out to their communities looking for sponsorship. They bring their sponsorship money to the sporting event. They "compete" against other individuals or teams. There are token prizes for winning the competition, and more substantial incentives for raising the most money.

If you're trying to raise money this way, it's good to round up as many participants as you can possibly squeeze in. As a rule, charity events are based on sports that are either very popular among adults, or relatively simple to master. No, scratch that. The sport doesn't need to be mastered; in fact, being an expert is really contrary to the basic spirit of the event. The sport does have to be simple to pick up, though. Ideally, most people can do it without any serious preparation. Slow-pitch softball, volleyball, dragon boat racing … these are all good candidates for a charity sporting event.

War Canoe racing at the Canadian national (club) championships

And that's what makes the Canoe Challenge an interesting example: paddling in a war canoe is actually quite difficult. Most adults trying it for the first time are extremely uncomfortable, and the chance of capsizing is fairly high. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a picture of war canoe done well (this was not taken at the Canoe Challenge).

There are fourteen paddlers, plus a coxswain, in a boat. The paddlers kneel on one knee and use large paddles to generate a great deal of power. When the boat is full, there isn't much room to move. The boats are not particularly streamlined, but much more so than a dragon boat or a typical recreational canoe. They are also relatively fragile. The event is raced almost exclusively in Canada, over 500 or 1000 m, which takes approximately two or four minutes. The boats themselves are loosely derived from the War Canoe of the North American First Nations.

The War Canoe is so difficult, in fact, that the Dartmouth event is (to my knowledge) the only charity war canoe race held anywhere in the world. Lake Banook is the logical host site for this unique event; the lake is home to three competitive flatwater canoe clubs, and the Halifax regional municipality contains five more. The relationship between the Canoe Challenge and these supporting sport organizations is another interesting aspect of the event. Due to the technical nature of the sport, the organizers lean heavily on the canoe clubs for equipment and expertise. The clubs derive a small financial benefit from their involvement, but on balance they feel that their contributions are not fully recognized. One symptom of the divide between the two groups is evident in the name of the event — Medavie Blue Cross has quietly rebranded the 2006 version as the Canoe Challenge, dropping the unfriendly-sounding "War" that identifies the type of boat.

This year's (War) Canoe Challenge was held on Saturday in miserable weather. Each team was entitled to two practices in the weeks leading up to the event. Only about two-thirds of the teams availed themselves of the opportunity, meaning that ten crews showed up on Saturday having never been in the boat. For the challenge, the crews were limited to twelve paddlers, and the coxswains — who need very specialized skills — were provided by the organizers. Each team races twice over 200 m, with the top teams by aggregate time advancing to a final.

As the organizer of the sporting competition central to the event, I would give it a "B" grade. After a slow start, the races ran roughly as scheduled. About half a dozen crews capsized, but nobody got hurt. About the same number of crews declined to participate in their second race, although that number would have been lower if the weather had been more pleasant. I think the competitors mostly enjoyed themselves, in spite of the conditions. The equipment made it through mostly unscathed.

I also introduced a few new ideas, which I think were quite successful. One of those involved Olympians Canada. Five representatives of the Most Exclusive Club in the Nation participated as honorary coaches for the five teams that raised the most money. I think that this really added something unique to the event. The Olympians threw themselves into their roles with great relish and became enthusiastic members of their assigned teams. Well, four of them did, anyway — I had too much on my plate to really do a good job in my coaching role.

The teams raised $116,000 for the two beneficiaries.

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