A Spritz of Glitz

Rodeo kayaking's effort to transform itself into a mainstream sport

Paul Kvinta

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Glitz, Tanya Shuman thinks, is good—even when it involves 17 million pounds of water displacement per minute. Glitz, in fact, may be the future of rodeo kayaking. And certainly, as part of a movement to give performance-style kayaking more mass appeal, Shuman, 27, is staking her career on surfing the sport’s rather kitschy wave of glamorization. “We’re like snowboarding was five years ago,” she exclaims. “Rodeo is about to break through!”

For those not fully drenched in whitewater argot, rodeo or freestyle kayaking involves paddlers dropping into a river hydraulic or hole, then pirouetting and cartwheeling for 30 seconds while music—usually upbeat, elevator-style pop tunes—blares from loudspeakers. When the sport first began about ten years ago, it emphasized power over grace, rewarding boaters who could, say, cartwheel 18 times before getting flushed out of the hole. Today, the emphasis is increasingly on style, nuance, and, yes, glitz. All of which play to Shuman’s strengths. One of the top five women rodeo boaters in the nation, she embodies both the virtues and the controversies of her sport’s evolution. A sometime fashion model, she is well-groomed, wide-eyed, and friendly (her nickname is “Smiley”). And she thinks rodeo should be the same. “We should have more river festivals,” she says. “It would be like ice skating, only wet.”

Not all of her compatriots share her Kayak Capades vision, however. “I don’t want to see this sport turned into a Vegas floor show,” says E.J. Jackson, America’s top male freestyler. Nevertheless, when the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships convene this month in Taupo, New Zealand, Shuman and others will press the heads of the national teams to implement scoring that rates entertainment value over power. If they succeed, they’ll set the agenda for next year’s first-ever World Cup rodeo kayaking tour. “It’s an exciting moment,” Shuman says. “Next year, you’ll see rodeo explode.” And if not, well, Vegas can always use a good water routine.

Hitting the Wall

Track and field’s unsportsmanlike collision with drugs and cheating

“There were so many black eyes for running this year,” sighs Joe Douglas, one of America’s top distance coaches (he is Carl Lewis’s personal manager) who has long called for increased drug testing. “Some of it may be good for us eventually, just like last year when [the drug controversy that swept] the Tour de France made cycling look hard at itself. But if the only thing fans take away is that this sport is full of dopers and cheats, we’re in big trouble.” This is one explanation behind the dismal state of international track and field, a sport that even as late as last July seemed poised to reverse 25 years of declining attendance figures and desultory TV ratings by reigniting fan interest during its pre-Olympic season. Instead, the season stumbled in spectacular fashion, flailing amid unsportsmanlike conduct, accusations of drug use, and a humiliating marketing debacle.

The trouble started in late July when officials announced that Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor had tested positive for cocaine. (When Sotomayor—who is revered as something of a national hero in Cuba—was stripped of his Pan Am Games gold medal, track fan Fidel Castro suggested that Sotomayor’s sample must have been tampered with by pro-democracy forces.) Days later, Dennis Mitchell, one of America’s top 100-meter speedsters, was suspended for two years for having elevated levels of testosterone. (Mitchell attempted to explain away his running afoul of antidoping policies by insisting that he’d simply been having enviably excessive amounts of sex and beer.)

Then, during the third week in August, it was announced that Jamaica’s storied sprinter Merlene Ottey, 39, holder of more World Championship medals (14) than any other runner in history, had tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. Ottey withdrew from the Worlds and will almost certainly be suspended from international competition. Even if she appeals the results of the tests, she could miss next summer’s Olympics, and her career, for all intents and purposes, would be over.

While Ottey may have passed from the scene, nandrolone offers the unsavory prospect of continuing to make headlines for quite some time. One of the least toxic of steroids, nandrolone has recently been found in samples from at least six top athletes, including Britain’s 1992 Olympic gold medal sprinter Linford Christie. All of these athletes claim to have ingested it unwittingly—and they’re not without some support: Several toxicologists say that certain allowable over-the-counter nutritional supplements can produce positive test results because they contain nandrolone. Regardless, every athlete will be screened for nandrolone at the Olympics.

The drug controversies would have been enough for any sport, but track and field’s misfortunes were compounded by an equally embarrassing dust-up over cheating. The trouble surfaced in early August, just as sports publicists began hyping the fact that Kenyan steeplechaser Bernard Barmasai was only two race wins away from a $1 million check to be awarded to any runner who could sweep his or her event at seven major European meets (the so-called Golden League circuit). The promotional scheme, conjured up by Golden League directors to draw spectators to the events, backfired when Barmasai admitted that on August 11, at Zurich’s Weltklasse meet, he’d convinced Kenyan teammate Christopher Koskei to lose, thus allowing Barmasai to stay in the million-dollar hunt. Professing confusion amid the resulting uproar (in which he was disqualified for the prize), Barmasai said, “What we did was not cheating. It was tactics.”

Even amid these scandals, however, insiders and fans alike continued to hope that the performance by Marion Jones, the American sprinter and long-jumper, at the Worlds in Seville, Spain, during the final week of August, might somehow redeem the sport. Because of her dazzling, multi-event talent and her not-inconsiderable charisma, Jones stands as track and field’s surest bet for massive, money-minting sports celebrity. Expected to win as many as four golds at the event, she was also supposed to produce the kind of nationalist fervor that the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and Lance Armstrong had ignited earlier in the summer. Instead, Jones collapsed during the 200 meter event with agonizing back spasms. Writhing on the track, she offered an image not of triumph, but of the suffering that can underlie even the grandest athletics—an image at once haunting and sorrowful, but in no way uplifting.

In the end, however, running aficionados may still have reason to be optimistic, for regardless of the problems plaguing the 1999 season, the Sydney Olympics will almost certainly offer the sport an enormous shot in the arm. And indeed, the Worlds have already provided a preview of what to expect: Aired on tape by NBC over two weekends, they drew higher ratings than any track event since Atlanta, 1996. Of course, this type of boost occurs with every Olympics. What track needs now is to find a way of capturing the spotlight more often than once every four years.

Unreality Bites

Jim Fowler’s new zoo will make Disney’s Animal Kingdom look tame

“Your safari truck rounds a bend,” says wildlife impresario Jim Fowler, “and suddenly a pack of wolves appears, and they start trailing your vehicle. Now that’s suspense!” Well, yeah, but only if you don’t know that the pack has been conditioned with “food rewards” to go through the same Pavlovian schtick several times a week. Fowler, who served for years as Marlin Perkins’s laconic TV sidekick on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and who regularly flings cheetahs and chimps into Katie Couric’s lap on the set of the Today Show, is talking about the plans for his $25 million, 2,000-acre interactive animal park in Glynn County, Georgia. Construction begins next month, and Fowler claims that when the gates open next spring, the park will “revolutionize the way people experience wildlife by combining education and adventure.”

How so? The high concept hinges on the sort of ersatz drama that should be familiar to Wild Kingdom viewers. Take the doughnut-shaped mesh enclosures called “predator feeding tunnels.” While visitors huddle inside, lions, tigers, and bears will scramble over the top and sides and begin inhaling chunks of raw meat tossed out by keepers. In the “adventure playground,” kids will zip down water slides and climb on jungle gyms while otters and bear cubs mimic their behavior on similar equipment in neighboring enclosures. And at a rustic outdoor stage, experts will show off small creatures born inside the park. “The animals will represent themselves and their species,” says Fowler. “They will be ambassadors for the natural world.”

Despite the involuntary nature of the captives’ diplomacy, animal rights activists are voicing cautious if ambivalent support. “It’s certainly a step up from wrestling anacondas,” says Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “How much of a step,” she adds, “it’s too early to tell.”

promo logo