First Olympic Appearance: 1924
by Gerry Brown and Mark Zurlo
First of all, there are some basic differences between canoes and kayaks. The canoe paddler kneels to paddle while the kayaker paddles sitting down. Also, a canoe paddle has a flat blade on only one end of the paddle shaft while the kayak paddle is equipped with a curved blade on each end. When you watch the Games also notice that the slalom canoes, unlike regular canoes, are decked, meaning there is a spray skirt that keeps water out of the boat. Also, the slalom canoes and kayaks are shorter and wider than their sprint counterparts in order to be more maneuverable.
There are two distinct disciplines in the canoe/kayak competitions: slalom and sprint. The dramatic slalom competitions are held on whitewater while sprints are races on flat water. The slalom didn't make its Olympic debut until 1972 in Munich, and because of the costs associated with building the courses, didn't return until Barcelona in 1992. It can be tough to find a naturally occurring course suitable for the events. In fact, Atlanta 1996 organizers were forced to go out-of-state to Tennessee's Ococee River.
There will be three men's and one women's slalom event in London. Men's K1, C1 and C2 and women's K1 (K1 means kayak with one person, while C2 means canoe with two people) require paddlers to be the fastest to successfully negotiate between 20 and 25 gates in rough waters over a man-made 250-meter U-shaped course at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire.
Competitors are penalized for touching, or worse, entirely missing a gate. The gates comprise two striped poles hanging just above the water from a wire strung over the course. The penalty for touching a gate is two seconds; the penalty for missing a gate is 50 seconds. According to Olympic rules, at least six of the 20 to 25 gates must require a paddler to paddle upstream, the remaining gates can be oriented downstream. Slalom racers are not permitted to practice on the racecourse. The first time they face the conditions and layout of the gates is during competition.
In the sprint category there are 12 events. Men compete in both sprint canoe and kayak. The men's events are the 500-meter and 1,000-meter K1 and K2, the 1,000-meter K4 and the 500-meter and 1,000-meter C1 and C2. Women race in the 500-meter K1, K2, and K4. While the slalom racers go on a single lane course and race against a clock, the sprint paddlers race on a multi-laned course against several other boats. There is a rule that all boats must stay five meters away from their competitors in order to prevent boats from gaining an advantage from riding the wake of another boat. If one boat steers to the edge of the nine-meter wide lane it is the neighboring boat's responsibility to avoid the wake.
The sprint events will be held at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre at Dorney Lake.
The boats can be made of any materials as long as they meet the regulations on dimensions. Most Olympic canoes and kayaks are made of a super lightweight carbon-kevlar compound but occasionally fiberglass and wooden ones can be seen. Sprint kayaks are the only boats in the canoe/kayak competition that have rudders to help steering.