Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Speed is the key in canoe sprint competitions with power, skill and strategy also required to win the battle on water.


For thousands of years, canoes have been used on rivers, lakes and at sea as a means of transport and a tool for hunting, playing an important role in the daily lives of humans.

Canoes were first used in sport in the mid-19th century in Great Britain when Scottish explorer and barrister John MacGregor introduced canoeing through his writings. He was instrumental in not only developing canoeing as a sport but popularising it too. The first canoe regatta took place in 1867 on the River Thames. Then in 1924, the first international body for canoe sport was formed in Copenhagen, Denmark, as the Internationale Repräsentantenschaft Kanusport (IRK), and it became the International Canoe Federation (ICF) in 1946.

Canoe sprint takes place on a flatwater course, with multiple canoes taking off at once and racing each other to the finish. Originally known as ‘flat water racing’, canoe sprint was a demonstration sport in the Paris 1924 Games before it became part of the Olympic programme at Berlin 1936 with nine men’s events over distances of 1,000m and 10,000m. The first women’s event, kayak, took place at the London 1948 Games. Long-distance events including the 10,000m have not taken place since Rome 1960, with the longest distance now 1,000m.

One Minute, One Sport | Canoe

"One Minute, One Sport" will show you the rules and highlights of Canoe one minute

Event Programme

  • Kayak Single (K-1) 200m (Men/Women)
  • Kayak Single (K-1) 1,000m (Men)
  • Kayak Single (K-1) 500m (Women)
  • Kayak Double (K-2) 1,000m (Men)
  • Kayak Double (K-2) 500m (Women)
  • Kayak Four (K-4) 500m (Men/Women)
  • Canoe Single (C-1) 1,000m (Men)
  • Canoe Single (C-1) 200m (Women)
  • Canoe Double (C-2) 1,000m (Men)
  • Canoe Double (C-2) 500m (Women)

Essence of the sport

A powerful dynamic sprint and a fierce battle for the finish line

In canoe sprint, two types of boats are used: canoe (C) and kayak (K). Canoe sees paddlers compete in a kneeling position using a single-blade paddle. In contrast, a kayak paddler competes in a sitting position using a double-bladed paddle. Kayak paddlers steer with their feet using a rudder, whereas there is no rudder in a canoe so athletes must use their paddle to steer. Contrary to rowing where boats race backwards, both canoes and kayaks move forwards.

Races take place on a 9m wide flatwater course where boats line up and take off together when the starter signals. The top eight boats from the semi-finals advance to the ‘A’ final, while the boats placing 9th to 16th compete in the ‘B’ final.

The main attraction of canoe sprint is the dynamic and powerful start. Boats go from a still position and dash to top speed in seconds. The shortest distance race is 200m, with the men’s kayak single finishing in about 30 seconds.

The 500m and 1,000m races require strategic pacing and tactical racing against opponents, with the final sprint to the finish line being extremely fierce. Meanwhile, the key to winning the double and four events is the synchronised paddling skills of teams.

Outlook for the Tokyo 2020 Games

Europeans in the lead, with new global powers closing the gap

At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Games, Hungary won three out of the four women’s events and Germany three out of the six men’s events, with the other three distributed among Ukraine, England and Spain. While European countries have traditionally dominated the canoe sprint competitions, in recent years China, Brazil and New Zealand have been closing the gap. At the 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships, Brazil won the men’s C1 1,000m and China won the men’s C2 1,000m. In the women’s events, New Zealand won the K1 200m and 500m events, China won the C2 500m and USA won the C1 200m.

Paddlers from England have won consecutive golds in the men’s K1 200m, which debuted at London 2012, with Ed McKeever taking the gold before Liam Heath won at Rio 2016. Heath also won the 2019 World Championships and is favourite to win back-to-back golds in Tokyo.

Sebastian Brendel of Germany is a two-time Olympic gold medallist in the men’s C1 1,000m (London 2012 and Rio 2016). Having won 28 international competitions, he is the most successful competitor and will be a favourite in Tokyo.

New Zealand’s Lisa Carrington won gold medals at the last two Games in the women’s K1 200m and has also been unbeaten in the World Championships since 2011.

A new star on the horizon is 17-year-old Nevin Harrison of the USA who won the women’s C1 200m at the 2019 World Championships and is expected to be one of the strongest contenders in Tokyo.