August 19, 2006

More Than One Way Into the Olympics

Mark Keast wrote a piece in the Toronto Sun last week about the IDBF World Dragon Boat Club Crew Championships held in Toronto last weekend. The article was titled "Olympic hopes a long shot" and described some of the hurdles that the sport of dragon boat faces in gaining inclusion in the Olympics.

I wanted to point out that there are some interesting facts missing from the discussion about dragon boat racing in the Olympics. Here's what Keast wrote:

Haslam [executive president of IDBF] thinks it will take at least 20 years to get into the Olympics. The sport needs recognition as an Olympic federation first. Before that, it needs 75 national federations around the world under its umbrella. Dragon boating currently has around 60, Haslam said.

Indeed, the IDBF has a lot of hurdles to clear before it can get dragon boat into the Olympics. Even if it can gain recognition as an IF, the IDBF will still have to get the sport elected onto the list of Olympic sports; as we've seen before, the Olympic Charter says that this requires two-thirds support of the IOC membership, and that's a very tough standard to meet.

What the article doesn't mention, however, is that there's another possibility for dragon boat.

The sport of drachenbootrennen was in fact already included in the 2005 World Games. If you've never heard of the World Games, its a competition that the IOC supports as a sort of audition for the Olympics. Triathlon and taekwondo are both sports that entered the summer Olympic programme after a try-out at the World Games.

But you might ask yourself how a sport gets a place in the World Games when the IOC doesn't recognize its IF. That's the part that Mr. Haslam of the IDBF didn't mention: the IOC already recognizes the International Canoe Federation as the IF responsible for dragon boat.

And the ICF is not just a recognized IF — it also has two disciplines already on the summer Olympic programme. If the ICF decided that they wanted to add dragon boat as a new discipline of the sport of canoe-kayak, it would only require approval of the IOC Executive. The IOC members wouldn't get to vote on the idea, at least not directly. So if dragon boat really wants into the Olympics, then going in through the ICF would significantly reduce some of the political hurdles.

Of course, it would increase some others. Mainly, the dragon boat lobby would have to deal with the internal politics of the ICF. Those two Olympic disciplines I mentioned (flatwater and slalom) would not be too keen to give up any of their events to dragon boats, and the ICF is probably not strong enough to wrestle extra medals from the IOC's quota. Trying to strike out as an independent IF allows the sport of dragon boat to be, well, independent, with an IF that is looking out for its interests alone.

So although the ICF has an "official" responsibility for dragon boat's Olympic destiny, that's currently not worth very much. The IDBF-sanctioned competitions are much better attended, and more prestigious, and the ICF World Championships are a poor cousin to the IDBF event. Without a credible World Championship, the ICF couldn't get dragon boat into the Olympics even if it did want to, and without recognition by the IOC, the IDBF can't either. It isn't entirely clear whether the IDBF will ever be recognized. The Sun article makes it sound like it's a simple matter of having 75 member national federations, but the existence of the ICF within the IOC will complicate matters. At any rate, the acrimony between the two federations doesn't help either side, and trickles down to the competing national federations as well.

I'm not arguing that the sport of dragon boat would be "better off" under the ICF umbrella. But I do think that this is an interesting example of the politics of Olympic sport. I will be watching to see how this power struggle plays itself out as competitive dragon boat racing continues to grow.

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