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The word kayak, meaning “man-boat” in Eskimo, was found predominately in North America, Siberia and Greenland. They were ideal for individual transport and were used primarily for hunting and fishing. The canoe, on the other hand, was used on a wider scale. From Native American tribes to the Polynesians, the canoe had a variety uses, primarily transport, trade and warfare. The basics of Canoe sprint are simple. Get to the finish as fast as possible, the fastest person wins.
The design of canoes varied, depending on their use and where they were built; they varied between open-topped bark canoes to dug-out trees to 130ft war canoes. In contrast, kayaks were built to ensure icy Arctic water did not enter the boat. They were made by stretching animal skins over a wooden frame and could generally only carry one man at a time. Kayaks are closed boats with a cockpit for sitting in. Athletes paddle from a sitting position with a double-blade paddle. Canoes are open boats paddled from a kneeling position with a single-blade paddle.
Canoe sport competitions began in the mid-19th century. The Royal Canoe Club of London was formed in 1866 and was the first organisation interested in developing the sport. In 1871 the New York Canoe Club was founded. The first women’s competition was organised in Russia. By the 1890s, canoe sport was popular all over the European continent. Since canoe sprints entered the Olympics in 1936, its events have changed and adapted in order to improve its overall standing and follow current trends and boat technological advances.
In 1924 in Paris, flatwater canoeing featured at the Games as a demonstration sport. It became an Olympic discipline in Berlin in 1936. Later, some of its events disappeared to make way for new ones.
Overall, Europe dominates this sport, at both the Olympic Games and the World Championships, winning 90 per cent of the medals up for grabs. Since the 1948 Games in London, women have competed in the kayak event only. Today, the Olympic canoe/kayak flatwater programme comprises a total of 12 events.
The recent trend is towards reducing the course distance. At the beginning, in the World Championships, the courses were staged over 1,000 and 10,000 metres for men and 5,000 metres for women. Today, they are over distances of 200, 500 and 1 000 metres. The Olympic events take place over 500 and 1,000 metres.
For the 2012 Games in London, the three men’s flatwater 500 metres events will be replaced by 200m events.