Canoe Sprint

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['Canoe sprint' (International Canoe Federation terminology) refers to both canoe and kayak sprint.]

The 'fastest paddlers on the planet'! Sprint is a classic test and combination of explosive power, pure speed and endurance in boats which feel like you are paddling on a gymnast’s balance beam on water.

Making its first appearance at the 1924 Olympics as an exhibition event, sprint is one of the oldest Olympic disciplines. The goal of a sprint competition is; first to the finish line wins (as long as you stay in the middle of your own lane).

Sprint includes two boat classes, both are really unstable and can be tipped easily:


Paddlers sit on a seat in a boat and use a double-blade paddle (a blade on both ends of the shaft) to propel themselves forward. Athletes paddle on both sides, alternating sides after each stroke.

The kayak has a partially closed deck boat with an opening slightly wider than the hips for the paddler to sit inside, knees are visible. It has a rudder for steering using the feet. Boats are extremely unstable, they require superior balance and technical skill even in good conditions but more so in rough conditions with wind and waves.

Kayak events follow the abbreviation of 'K', standing for kayak, the number following it indicates the number of paddlers (K1, K2, K4).


Paddlers kneel on one knee (similar to the position of being “knighted”) with the opposite leg placed out in front of them on the floorboard, inside the canoe, for balance support. The canoe itself has an open deck boat and no rudder.

Paddlers use a paddle with a single-blade at one end and a 'T'-grip handle at the other – the paddle is slightly shorter than the height of the athlete, usually up to eye level. Canoeists only paddle on one side and steer using a 'J' stroke with the paddle. 

The 'C' in the boat designation (C1, C2, or C4) stands for 'Canadian' boat in honour of its Canadian heritage, the number following it indicates the number of paddlers on-board. Canadians were asked to demonstrate canoeing at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris by the French Olympic Committee, hosts of the Games.


Canoe/kayak (or officially 'canoeing') became an Olympic sport in 1936, for men only. Women’s kayak was added to the Olympic program in 1948 (K1 500m).

Currently, there are 12 sprint events in the Olympic Program. Men compete in C1, C2 and K1 and K2 at 200/1000m distances and in four-man kayaks (K4) over 1000m. Women compete in K1, K2, and K4 in 500m races and 200m in K1. 

There are currently no women’s canoe events in the Olympic programme. However, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) stated in November 2013 that it will submit a proposal to the International Olympic Committee for the inclusion of women’s canoe events in both sprint and slalom for the 2020 Olympics.

Disability flatwater sprinting is known as 'paracanoe'. Paracanoe and kayak will make its Paralympic début in 2016. The ICF included paracanoe/kayak events for the first time as exhibition at the 2009 World Championships. In 2010, a total of 9 events were added to the official Senior World Championships programme: men competed in 3 kayak and 3 canoe races, women in 2 kayak and 1 canoe. The final 2016 Paralympic canoe/kayak program has not yet been announced.

In non-Olympic competitions (World Championships, Pan American Championships, World Cups, etc.) men and women compete in K1, K2 and K4 events, men also compete in C1, C2 and C4 in all 3 distances above. They also compete in K1/C1 over 5,000m and the K1/C1 200m relays (4 x 200m). 

At the Senior and Junior/U23 World Championships, there are currently 2 official events for women’s canoe: C1 200m and C2 500m. Senior World Championships occur annually, except in an Olympic year and are typically scheduled in August. There are 3 World Cups held between May and June.

Sprint Trivia

  • Folding kayaks were used in two events in the 1936 Olympics – K1 and K2 10,000m.
  • A men's K1 4 × 500m relay was included in the 1960 Olympics.
  • 10,000m events for K1/K2 and C1/C2 were included between 1936-1956.
  • The women’s K2 500m event was added in 1960 and K4 500m in 1984.
  • The first ICF World Championship was held in 1938 in Vaxholm, Sweden, just outside the city of Stockholm. Men competed in three canoe events (C1, C2, C4 1000m) and seven kayak events (K1/K2 1000m and 10,000m, K1/K2 10,000m folding kayak, and K4 1000m). Women raced in two events: K1 and K2 600m.
  • The most successful sprint paddler at the Olympic Games is Birgit Fischer from Germany. In her 24 year Olympic career she won 8 Gold and 4 Silver medals, her first Gold was achieved in 1980 in Moscow; her last in Athens, 2004, making her both the youngest and oldest paddler to win Gold.
  • At the 2012 Olympic Games, Josefa Idem-Guerrini (Italy) set an Olympic record by becoming the first woman to compete at eight Olympic Games.

An exciting new competition format of sprinting on lake-water was developed at the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympic Games where two paddlers compete head-to-head around a figure-of-8. They both start on the same line at the same time (similar to cycling velodrome); then they paddle in opposite directions around 2 loops and 2 straights over about 420m in total - there is a fixed floating boom/lane-market for passing in the centre; finishing lines are at opposite ends. This format allows for more spectators to watch from all angles lakeside.


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