ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

Olympics guide: Canoeing

By David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton

Olympics guide: Canoeing
07 May 2012

Almost drowned in freezing waters at Birmingham's Ackers Trust centre in the early 90s, learning how to canoe. Have avoided it ever since. Not even going to read the below, but you must if you're planning on watching it at the Olympics:

Athletes: 330

Golds up for grabs: 16

Olympic presence: Sprint canoeing was a demonstration sport at the 1924 Games, and became a full event in 1936; slalom arrived in 1972.

Olympic Format: Olympic canoeing is divided into sprint and slalom. In both, heats are followed by semi-finals and then a final. There are four slalom (three for men, one for women) and twelve sprint events (seven for men, five for women), each designated by a letter plus a number: K stands for kayak and C for canoe, and the numeral denotes the number of occupants per boat. Distances range from 100m to 1000m (500m max for women).

Contenders: Germany was dominant at the Beijing Games and is likely to be so again. Central European nations are also powerful in both disciplines: watch out for Hungarians in the sprints and the Slovakian Hochschorner twins going for their fourth consecutive gold in the C2 slalom. Britain’s Tim Brabant is the reigning K1 1000m sprint champion but faces a stern challenge from Canada’s Adam van Koeverden.

Past Champions: USSR /Russia: 29 | USA : 14 | Belgium: 11

Watch it: 29 July–1 August (SLALOM); 6 –11 August (SPRINT) Lee Valley White Water Centre (slalom), Eton Dorney (sprint) Catch the BBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games across 24 dedicated channels on freesat


The basics

The first thing to get your head around is the difference between canoeing and kayaking. Not only will this help you make sense of paddle-related goings on at the Games; it will endear you to practitioners of both arts, who get heartily sick of people confusing the two or using the terms interchangeably (a situation not helped by Olympic nomenclature, which brackets them together as ‘canoeing’).

Canoes are propelled with single-ended paddles by people kneeling on one knee. Kayaks are propelled with double-ended paddles by seated individuals. Whereas canoes are open in design, kayaks are ‘closed’ vessels, whose occupants seal themselves in by stretching skirt-like devices called spray decks over the rims of their cockpits. This was an essential precaution for the Inuit hunters who invented the craft, to prevent their boats filling up with icy Arctic water. They also invented an ingenious technique of righting themselves when they capsized, known as the Eskimo roll (pictured, below). The second key distinction is between sprint events, which take place on calm water on straight courses divided into lanes, and slalom, which involve negotiating series of gates on decidedly non-straight stretches of turbulent ‘white’ water. Whereas sprint canoeing and kayaking take the form of first-past-the-post races, slalom has a time trial format.

Sprint Canoeing

Men’s sprint races are held over 200m and 1000m (canoes and kayaks), women’s over 200 and 500m (kayaks only). There are no turns, just straight, lung-bursting charges to the finishing line. It takes around 30 seconds for each kind of boat to complete a 200m course.

There are eight boats in each Olympic heat, each allocated a ninemetre wide lane. To help prevent false starts, the boats are aligned with their noses in small cones which automatically drop away at the start signal. Any boat guilty of two false starts is disqualified. Throughout a race, competitors must endeavour to keep their boats within the four-metre-wide central areas. If they deviate, they must move back towards the centre. If one boat comes within five metres of another, it must take immediate remedial action or face the possibility of disqualification. If it leaves its allocated lane, this punishment is automatic; capsizing also brings disqualification.


Sprint canoes and kayaks are complex devices, typically made from a combination of Kevlar, carbon fibre, fibreglass and sometimes foam, bonded in layers by epoxy or polyester resin. The emphasis in sprint canoeing is on speed rather than manoeuvrability and this is reflected in the design of the boats, which are longer and more streamlined than their slalom cousins, with very narrow beams. This makes them easy to capsize.

The boats in the sprint classes are delineated as K1, K2 and K4 (kayaks with maximum lengths of 520cm, 650cm and 1100cm), and C1, C2 and C4 (canoes with maximum lengths of 520cm, 650cm and 900cm). Each also has a minimum weight. Sprint kayaks are equipped with foot-controlled rudders under their hulls, which are operated by the sole or front paddler. This removes the need for corrective strokes, allowing all the paddling energy to be channelled into forward motion. By contrast, sprint canoes are rudderless, which makes the use of corrective strokes essential.

Slalom Canoeing

The 2012 Olympic slalom course at Lee Valley has (like four of the five courses in Olympic slalom history) been artificially constructed, dropping 5.5m along its 300-metre length, with a pump-powered water flow of 15 cubic metres per second.

The Course

All slalom courses must have the following features: Length of 250 to 400 metres (generally navigable by a good single male canoeist in around 95 seconds). Equal ease/difficulty of navigation for right- and lefthanded canoe paddlers (kayakers, by definition, paddle ambidextrously). 18 to 25 gates, six or seven of which must be negotiated uphill. Green and white gates must be crossed with the boat heading downstream, red and white ones in the opposite direction. Gates must consist of either one or two suspended poles between 1.2 and 4 metres apart. In the case of a one-pole gate, the other pole is placed on the bank of the course to define the gate line (the imaginary line a competitor must cross). The lower end of each pole must be about 20cm above the water line. The distance between the last gate and the finish line must be between 15 and 25 metres. The ideal Olympic course will also have at least one gate combination which offers competitors several different options; constant changes of direction; and a gamut of daunting water features, including eddies, waves and rapids.


Competitors get two runs in the heats, with their better times determining progression. Semi-finals and finals are single-run affairs, which leaves no margin for error. Time penalties, which are added to the time taken to complete the course, are incurred for failing to negotiate gates correctly. For a gate to be crossed successfully, it must be tackled from the right direction and in the right running order (Gate 2 comes after Gate 1 and so on); the head of each competitor must cross the gate line at the same time as at least part of the boat; and neither of the gate posts must be touched by boat, paddle or body. If either or both the poles are touched, a 2-second penalty is incurred.

If a gate is missed, a 50-second penalty is incurred. A gate is deemed to be missed if any part of a competitor’s head breaks the gate line in the wrong direction; part of the head breaks the gate line without part of the boat doing the same simultaneously; a competitor intentionally pushes a gate pole to aid negotiation; a competitor’s head is underwater when the gate line is crossed (this isn’t unheard of ); or the gate is tackled out of sequence or omitted altogether. In practice, missing a gate is fatal to hopes of a medal. The same is true of capsizing, which is deemed to have occurred if a competitor has left his or her boat altogether. Turning a boat upside down does not in itself constitute capsizing. If the occupant(s) manage(s) to execute an Eskimo roll, there is no penalty and the boat can continue.


Like the sprint equivalents, slalom canoes and kayaks are typically made from permutations of Kevlar, carbon fibre, fibreglass, foam and resin. At Olympic level, they are usually tailor-made for the course they will be tackling. They are, however, invariably designed with maximum manoeuvrability in mind, which comes at the expense of stability. The difference between slalom kayaks and canoes is less obvious than in sprint racing, as both are decked and equipped with cockpits. The canoeists, however, must still kneel rather than sit. Rudders are not permitted on either kind of boat. The weight and length stipulations for Olympic slalom boats are delineated in three classes: K1, C1 and C2 (kayak/canoes with minimum lenghts of 3.5m, 3.5m and 4.1m; minimum widths and weights are also stipulated).

Love and Losers among the Rapids

The women’s kayak slalom at the 1992 Barcelona Games was enlivened by the (non-)performance of Costa Rica’s Gilda Montenegro, who accumulated an impressive 470 penalty points on her first run. She spent most of her next attempt upside down, breaking her helmet as her head banged along the bottom of the course. It transpired that she had never even trained for the event until a month before the Games. Belatedly realising that his country had one more canoeing berth at Barcelona than he had thought, Costa Rican coach Rafael Gallo had decided to offer the place to the nice lady who had worked for him as a raft guide.

Montenegro was so traumatised by the experience that she wouldn’t go near a kayak for eighteen months. She was made of stern stuff, however, and reappeared at Atlanta determined to complete the course without missing a gate. She achieved her ambition on her second run, finishing 28th of 30 competitors. Her gutsy attitude so impressed Oliver Fix, the German winner of the men’s single slalom at Atlanta, that the couple ended up married.

'Extracted from How to Watch the Olympics by David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton (Profile Books)'