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Tokyo Olympic Games: Canoe pioneer Mallory Franklin prepares to make history

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Tokyo Olympic Games: Canoe pioneer Mallory Franklin prepares to make history
Mallory Franklin
Mallory Franklin is a four-time world champion and five-time European champion

When Mallory Franklin competes in canoeing at the Tokyo Olympic Games, the weight of decades of women wishing they could do the same will rest on her shoulders.

The 26-year-old is chasing gold for Team GB in women's C1 - an event that will be included at the Games for the first time this year.

Since canoe slalom was first introduced at the 1972 Olympics, there have been three categories for men to enter and just one for women.

With one of those men's events involving two paddlers, countries could enter four men for every one woman in canoe slalom.

In Tokyo, for the first time ever, there will be gender parity among canoe slalom athletes as both men and women can enter either the canoe or kayak single events.

Not everyone is happy about it. That is one of the reasons Franklin has been called a pioneer by her peers.

The path of a pioneer is often strewn with adversity and it has been no different for the women who have been battling to compete in C1 - where athletes kneel in a boat and use a single-bladed paddle.

Back in 2009, a 15-year-old Franklin was one of the first women to take part in the event at a World Championships - although at the time it was only included as an exhibition.

"We had a training camp before that race with all the C1 women," recalls Franklin, who became world champion in the event in 2017.

"They invited us on the course and gave us a bit of coaching before. I remember you would see people watching us fall in and laughing about it."

Men get medals, women get flowers

That laughter was a telling sign of what was to come.

"C1 women just wasn't taken seriously at that point," Franklin says. "A lot of it was put down to girls not being strong enough. There was not the appreciation that it was a brand new class that had just come in.

"All the other disciplines would have looked like this if you went back to their roots. Every other discipline has had more than 30 years to develop and finesse itself."

At a race in Germany, organisers said C1 women did not have to complete two of the gates on the course "because they were too hard". Franklin went through them anyway.

At a junior event, C1 women were given flowers while men competing in the doubles C2 category got medals.

In some countries, the category is made to race early in the morning to avoid their event being included in television coverage.

Mallory Franklin kisses a medal
Mallory Franklin did get a medal when she won K1 and C1 gold at a 2019 World Cup event

'Had I been a man, I would have gone to the Olympics' - Gibson

While Franklin will get the chance to "prove wrong" those who do not believe C1 women should be at the Olympics, others have not been so fortunate.

Should the category have been included in the Games four years ago, Britain's Eilidh Gibson would have been on the startline in Rio.

Gibson won C1 senior British team selection that year and in other classes that meant people got to go to the Olympics.

The 25-year-old puts it best when she says: "Had I been a man, I would have gone to the Olympics."

"It's only upon reflection that you think how unfair it is, " Gibson continues.

"Just because that's how it is, doesn't mean that's how it should be. I would have loved to have been there but there wasn't the opportunity for me to be there."

But rather than feel any jealousy at Franklin's position, Gibson is one of those hailing her British team-mate as a pioneer.

So great is her admiration that, when derogatory comments about the category were made on social media in March, Gibson responded by writing Franklin a letter.

"Mallory was one of the very first C1 girls," Gibson explains.

"I talk about my admiration for her for really pioneering when there were literally people laughing at them on the river bank when they competed.

"What a momentous moment this is for our sport. If it wasn't going to be me who was going, for it to be Mallory is perfect.

"Without her, we wouldn't have had this opportunity and they wouldn't be going to the Olympics."

Gibson is one of the many women whose dream Franklin will be realising in Tokyo.

There may be some who say she and the others in her category should not be there, but those are not the people Franklin will be paddling for.

"It's amazing to be called a pioneer and it is something I pride myself on, trying to encourage young girls and show it is possible," she says.

"Seeing responses from young girls, that is when it hits me what I am doing for them. I am just trying to be the best athlete I can be and put myself in a position to win Olympic gold."

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