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By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – As many women as men will compete in an Olympic canoeing event for the first time when the paddlers gather at the artificial slalom and sprint courses in Tokyo on July 23 for the 2020 Summer Games.

That push for equality on the water parallels changes in sports such as boxing, judo and shooting, and is part of an International Olympic Committee goal to reach gender parity, with women in Tokyo expected to represent almost 49% of all athletes competing at the Games.

The additions of two canoe sprint events and one canoe slalom event for women, who until now have only competed in kayaks using doubled-bladed paddles, means women athletes can use the greater attention that brings to win funding and access better training and coaching.

To make way for those, however, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) has cut three events for male athletes in Japan that were in Rio De Janeiro five years earlier, including the 200-metre singles canoe sprint, kayak doubles 200-metre sprint and the canoe doubles slalom.

The change has spurred some opposition from men who will have fewer chances to win Olympic medals.

In Rio, Czech paddler Josef Dostal, who won a bronze medal, in kayak sprint, and Erik Vlcek of Slovakia, a silver medal winner, expressed reservations about what at the time was only a proposed change.

“Like many sports, we still have work to do before we are truly gender equal,” ICF President Jose Perurena said in a statement in March.

“To have 50-50 representation at all levels of the ICF should no longer be the exception, but rather the rule,” he added.

That work includes addressing gender imbalances in sports administration as well. The 13 member ICF executive board, which Perurena oversees, still only includes two women.

Tokyo 2020 canoeing will be the most diverse Olympic gathering in another way, with more nations than ever competing, including paddlers from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas challenging the Europeans who have dominated the sport for decades.

The slalom will be contested by 35 countries in Tokyo, compared with 30 in Rio, with 50 countries vying for Olympic medals in the sprint event, six more than five years ago, according to the ICF.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Stephen Coates)