Canoes have been used for centuries by people around the world, from Native American tribes to Polynesian islanders. Over time they have been made from logs, animal skins and tree bark and used for transportation, trade and even war. The kayak has its roots in the Arctic, originating among the Inuit in North America, Siberia and Greenland. Ideal for individual transport, they were used primarily for hunting and fishing and were made by stretching animal skins over a wooden frame.
Sporting competitions using these traditional vessels began in the mid-19th century. The first international governing body for the sport was established in 1924, the same year it appeared as a demonstration sport at the Olympic Games in Paris. The sprint discipline gained official medal status for Berlin 1936. Women’s events were added to the Olympic program at London 1948. Canoe/kayak sprint debuted at the Pan American Games in 1987. At Toronto 2015 women will compete in a canoe event for the first time at the Pan Am Games.
Racing canoes and kayaks are extremely narrow and balancing in them requires some skill. Kayakers use a double-bladed paddle and are seated in the boat. There is a rudder for steering, controlled by a stick at their feet. Some competitors use a rotating seat and many wear a spray skirt to prevent water from getting in the boat, particularly in windy or wavy conditions. Canoers balance on one knee in a high kneeling position and paddle only on one side of the boat. They steer entirely with their paddle.
The events are designated by a letter and number indicating the type of boat – K for kayak and C for canoe (or Canadian, as it was originally referred to internationally) – and the number of paddlers in the boat, as well as the distance to be covered. All events feature eight racing lanes. Competition begins with heats, from which paddlers advance to the semifinals and then onto the finals. Sometimes the top finishers in a heat can qualify directly for the final. The fastest qualifier is seated in the middle lane with the next fastest on either side. There are A and B Finals in each event, allowing the top 16 boats to be ranked.
A starting gate system holds the nose of each boat and drops below the water at the starting signal. If there is a false start, the offending crew is given a warning. A second false start by that same crew leads to disqualification. During the race, boats must remain within a four-metre wide central area of their lane. At the finish line competitors give a final “shoot” by throwing their weight backwards and pushing the nose of the boat forward in an effort to edge out the competition. Paddlers must cross the line in their boats for the result to count. Digital timing systems are used to clock the competitor’s finish to the thousandth of a second.