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New Zealand kayaker to be judged by mom at Olympics

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 5:18 AM EDT, Wed July 25, 2012
Mike Dawson, a 25-year-old kayaker representing New Zealand in the London Olympics, will be judged by his mother.
Mike Dawson, a 25-year-old kayaker representing New Zealand in the London Olympics, will be judged by his mother.
  • Mike Dawson is competing in the men's kayak event at the Olympics
  • His mother, Kay, is one of the judges at the event
  • The Dawsons and the New Zealand Canoe Federation say she can't influence the result
  • She is one of many gate judges over the canoe slalom course

(CNN) -- For the Dawsons of Tauranga, New Zealand, the canoe slalom event at the London Olympics will be a family affair.

Mike Dawson, who is competing in the men's kayak class, will not just be trying to impress his father, who coaches him, or his brother and sister, who will be watching from the crowd. He will also need to ensure he doesn't incur the disapproval of his mother, Kay, who is one of the judges at the event.

The idea of a mother officiating in a competition in which her son is participating may strike some as a little unfair, but the Dawsons and the New Zealand Canoe Federation are eager to stress there's no scope for special treatment in this case.

"The only real advantage mum can give me is her presence at what will be my biggest race ever," said Mike Dawson, who is competing in the Olympics for the first time after finishing 16th in the canoe slalom world championships in Slovakia last year.

The event involves the kayakers flinging themselves down a steep course of white-water rapids, weaving through a series of gates like slalom skiers in a race against the clock. If the competitors touch or miss a gate, they suffer a time penalty.

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Each gate has a judge watching out for errors, and a chief official oversees the entire course.

As one of the gate judges, Kay Dawson has an important role, but her decisions will be scrutinized by other officials -- each gate judge also monitors the two gates on either side. Competitors' runs are reviewed on video, and the chief official has the final say.

"I can't envisage any way a single gate judge could influence the outcome for any athlete," said Maree Burnett, the secretary general of the New Zealand Canoe Federation. "Kay is a very experienced international judge."

The International Canoe Federation, which selected her as the only judge from New Zealand for the Olympic event, agrees. In the past few years, Kay Dawson has officiated at canoe slalom world championships and world cups in which her 25-year-old son has raced.

The ICF has "a strong officiating process in place to ensure accuracy and fairness at all its competitions, whether it is at world cups, world championships or at the Olympic Games," said Lerina Bright, a spokeswoman for the federation.

She noted that some judges at the event have the same nationality as some competitors.

"That could equally be thought to create a conflict of interest," she said. "However, the judging process is thorough and stringent and does not provide any possibility for a single individual to affect the outcome of a competitor's run."

Despite the multitude of officials at the canoe slalom event, the role of individual judges is still significant, Kay Dawson has said.

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"When officiating the athlete and 100% accuracy is always the focus, one poor call can mean the difference between a top-10 finish and chance of a medal or being out of the competition," she wrote in an article on the New Zealand federation's website in February.

Relationships with family and friends don't enter the equation, though, she says.

"I've been officiating for a number of years now and know a lot of the athletes, so it is easy to put aside any personal emotions when I'm on the course," Kay Dawson said in comments relayed by the ICF on Wednesday.

"Several of the top men's slalom paddlers have stayed with us in New Zealand while they've been training with Mike and I owe it to all of them to do the most professional job possible," she added.

Mike Dawson, who was born and raised in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand, says the best way for him to stamp out any perceptions of favoritism is to not make any mistakes.

"If I'm paddling well, the gate judges won't come into play at all," he said.

He is not the only New Zealander competing in the canoe slalom: Luuka Jones, also from Tauranga, became the first New Zealand woman to compete in the kayak competition in the Olympics after qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Games. London will be her second Olympics, at the age of just 23.

For Mike Dawson, the Games are full of new experiences.

"We've been in the Olympic Village for a few days and it's pretty cool," Mike Dawson said. "I can see how people get intimidated, but really it's just like a hotel with an epic food court."

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