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Wherever it is necessary to move through the water, you will find a canoe. Throughout History, these vessels have been present in the everyday lives of many peoples, such as the Egyptians, and in many places, such as parts of North America. They have even been used in wars.
As a sport, canoeing gained popularity in the late 19th century in England. The first official competition took place in Belgium in 1877, and a few decades later, in 1924, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) was established in Denmark.
The sport is present in the Olympic programme in two disciplines: sprint and slalom. The first, present at the Games for men since the 1936 edition in Berlin, and for women since the London 1948 Games, takes place in calm waters, along straight routes marked by buoys, 1,000, 500 and 200 metres in length.
There are kayaks for one, two or four athletes, who use double-bladed oars. There are also canoes for one or two athletes, who use single-bladed oars. The sprints are won by the competitors who finish the course in the shortest time.
Canoe Slalom has been in the Olympic programme since the Barcelona 1992 Games. The men’s races feature canoes for one or two people, and kayaks for one person. Women also compete in this discipline, in individual kayaks. During the races, held over a 300-metre course in turbulent water, competitors must pass through 20 to 25 gates hung from suspended wires. Those who complete the course in the shortest time, and with the fewest penalties, are the winners.
Canoe Slalom began in 1932 in Switzerland. The inspiration was the Ski Slalom, in which participants go down a predefined course, passing through gates. The differences are that rather than snow, the setting is a river with turbulent waters, and some of the gates must be traversed in the upstream direction.
The first official competition took place in 1933, but the Second World War held back the discipline’s development. After the end of the conflict, in 1949, the International Canoe Federation (ICF), founded in 1924, decided to hold its first World Championship, in Switzerland.
Unlike the vessels used in Canoe Sprint, which are longer and thinner, Slalom vessels are smaller and lighter, made of materials capable of resisting strong rapids and allowing competitors to move in an agile manner along the course.
Slalom entered the Olympic programme at the Munich 1972 Games, with three men’s events and one women’s event. The discipline only returned at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and has remained in the programme to this day, with the same number of events. Canoe races are individual or in doubles, only for men, while in kayaks men and women compete individually.
As in Canoe Sprint, each type of vessel is identified by a letter – C for canoe, in which athletes use single-bladed oars, and K for kayak, in which competitors use double-bladed oars.
To improve visibility for live spectators and TV broadcasts, Olympic slalom races have always taken place on artificial or semi-artificial courses.
Each competitor must pass through 18 to 25 gates, which are hung from suspended wires and distributed along a 300-metre course. The gates follow a numerical sequence and the direction – downstream or upstream – for each gate is displayed. Competitors go through the course twice and their times are recorded. There are penalties that add time to each competitor’s final score.
The winners are those with the lowest time after computing all penalties.
Canoe Sprint has been present in the Olympic programme for more time than Slalom, the other discipline from this sport. The first canoe sprint competitions took place in the second half of the 19th century. The first organisation to hold competitions was the Royal Canoe Club, founded in 1866 in England. Shortly afterwards, in 1871, the New York Canoe Club was established. By around 1890, the sport had spread throughout Europe.
In 1924, Canoe Sprint took two important steps that made it even more popular: the foundation of an international federation and its inclusion as an exhibition sport at that year’s Olympic Games, in Paris.
The sport officially entered the Olympic programme at the following edition of the Games, in Berlin, with nine events for men only. Women’s events began at the 1948 Games in London, with just one event. Today there are eight men’s events and four women’s events.
Canoe sprint take place in calm waters, along straight routes marked by buoys, 1,000, 500 and 200 metres in length. The events differ in terms of the number of athletes in the vessels – one, two or four people – and the type of boat used: canoes or kayaks.
Canoes, identified by the letter C, are open boats, in which competitors kneel on one knee and use a single-bladed oar.
Identified by the letter K, kayaks have enough space for competitors to sit while they row with a double-bladed oar, each blade dipped alternately.
The aim is simple: to complete the route in the shortest possible time.