Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Paddling through white-water rapids, reading the current and navigating the tricky course.


In canoe slalom, competitors navigate a canoe or a kayak on a white-water course, passing through a combination of upstream and downstream gates on river rapids in the fastest time possible. The course is about 250m long and contains a maximum of 25 gates, with six or eight upstream gates. The course is designed so that competitors will complete it in around 95 seconds.

For thousands of years, canoes have been an important tool in the daily lives of human beings. They were used in sport for the first time in the mid-19th century in Great Britain as a sprint event on a flat-water course. The first canoe slalom competition took place in Switzerland in 1933 as a summer alternative to slalom skiing. Switzerland hosted the first world championships in Geneva in 1949. The world championships were held every other year until 1999 and have been held annually in non-Summer Olympic years since 2002. Canoe slalom made its Olympic debut as an introduction sport at the Munich 1972 Games, but it was a further 20 years before it returned to the Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992, where it took place on an artificial course. It is now a permanent part of the Olympic programme.

In the Tokyo 2020 Games, canoe slalom will be held at the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre, a brand new course that was completed in July 2019. For the first time, the event programme will include the women’s canoe single, which will replace the men’s canoe double held in Rio 2016. There will be a total of four events, the men’s and women’s kayak single and canoe single. The men’s and women’s kayak single will each feature 24 competitors and the canoe single will feature 17 competitors each.

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Event Programme

  • Kayak (K-1) (Men/Women)
  • Canoe (C-1) (Men/Women)

Essence of the sport

Canoe slalom used to take place on a wild water course, but most competitions today are held on an artificial white-water course with suspended gates. Some courses may have rapid currents that require power, while other courses may have slower currents that require more skill and manoeuvring. The course contains 18–25 gates, each gate comprised of two hanging poles. The downstream gates are coloured green and the upstream gates are red. Competitors must navigate their boat down the course without touching the gate. If the competitor's boat, paddle or body touches either pole of the gate, a time penalty of two seconds is added. If the competitor misses a gate, a 50-second penalty is given. The time it takes to complete the course is added to the penalty seconds incurred to give the overall time.

In kayak, the competitor is seated and uses a double-bladed paddle, paddling on alternate sides. In canoe, the competitor uses a single-bladed paddle and sits with legs bent at the knees and tucked under the body, paddling on either the left or right side.

In the Olympic Games, each competitor completes two runs in the qualification round and the faster time of the two runs gives the qualification result. The top 20 competitors in kayak and the top 15 in canoe will advance to the semi-finals where they will do one run. The ten fastest semi-finalists will compete in the final, and the ranking and the medallists will be determined based on the last run alone.

Compared to wild water rapids, where natural conditions may affect the outcome, the artificial course provides a consistent water flow, yet the current still has subtle changes. The key is to read the current and understand the course in order to choose the easiest path from gate to gate, trying to ride the current to move efficiently down the course. With the upstream gate, the competitor must have the skill to reduce their speed by finding a slow current to thrust the paddle into and changing the direction of the boat. The boat can also be manoeuvred backwards around the gate. Each competitor has a different strategy to navigate the course.

Even if competitors finish in the top positions in the qualifying round, they will have only one run in the semi-final and final, and anything can happen in the rapid currents where they are required to make fast judgements and react instantly. Skilled competitors arch their back and use only their head to go around the gate. It is a dynamic sport that also requires concentration, reflexes and technique.

Outlook for the Tokyo 2020 Games

Dominated by European paddlers, who will be the top contenders for the gold in Tokyo?

Of the seven Olympic Games since Barcelona 1992, European athletes have dominated the men’s medal race. Only in the canoe and kayak in Beijing 2008 and in the canoe in Rio 2016 did non-European athletes win the bronze. The favourites are Czech Republic, Germany, France, Slovakia, Slovenia and England. There are many artificial white-water courses all around Europe, which provide opportunities for athletes to practice and develop their skills.

On the women’s side, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, France and Spain have won gold in seven of the Olympic Games since Barcelona 1992. Other medal hopefuls include Australia, the USA and New Zealand. With more artificial courses established around the world, the gap is closing.

In canoe slalom, one athlete may qualify for one event per country, with a maximum number of four canoe slalom competitors. The competition to qualify is especially fierce in the traditionally strong countries.

One of the leading women athletes in kayak is Jessica Fox of Australia whose parents were both world champions. Fox won silver at London 2012 and bronze at Rio 2016, and she was No. 1 in the 2019 ICF world rankings. With outstanding skills and physical abilities, she is considered the favourite in Tokyo. In the women’s canoe single debuting in Tokyo, Great Britain’s Mallory Franklin has won many international competitions. Ranked second only after Jessica Fox, Franklin is the tallest canoe athlete and uses her long limbs to manoeuvre the boat. She is considered one of the top contenders for gold in Tokyo.