Canoe Slalom History

Canoe slalom was first modelled as a summer alternative to alpine skiing’s slalom discipline. Fittingly, the first canoe slalom race took place in Switzerland in 1932, although, surprisingly, it was held on the flat water of Lake Hallwil, outside Zurich.

A year later Swiss paddlers found the wild water of the rapids on the river more to their liking and the foundations of modern day canoe slalom racing were laid.

As in canoe sprint, the new discipline utilised both canoes and kayaks. However, unlike the long, sleek boats used by the sprinters, the crafts for canoe slalom evolved into smaller, lighter, more agile boats, suited to manoeuvring in fast-moving water.

Despite the outbreak of World War II stalling the development of the discipline, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) – inaugurated in 1924 under the name Internationale Repräsentantschaft für Kanusport (IRK) – was quick to embrace canoe slalom.

In 1949, 96 competitors representing seven countries gathered in Switzerland for the first ICF Canoe Slalom World Championship. The ICF world championship was held every odd year from 1949-1999 and became an annual event from 2001, except in Olympic years. During this period the design of the boats evolved, with the folding, rigid canoes and kayaks of the early years replaced first by fibreglass vessels and subsequently by those made of carbon-fibre composites.

The rules and regulations were also tweaked during the discipline’s infancy but the basics have remained the same. Over the years the courses have reduced in length with a few less gates to negotiate: the gold medallist in men’s kayak at Munich 1972 Games got a 268.56 score (258.56 seconds + 10 points as penalty) whereas here in Rio the course is expected to completed in less than 90 seconds.

Canoe slalom today

The global popularity of canoe slalom has increased dramatically since the discipline became an ever-present on the Olympic programme after it returned at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.

The discipline was initially most popular in Europe but thanks to interest in the Olympic Games, there are now five continental associations and 167 national federations affiliated to the ICF.

A total of 319 competitors representing 53 national federations (NFs) lined up at the 2015 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, held in Lee Valley, England. Paddlers from 11 different NFs won medals with the Czech Republic topping the medals table for the second championship running. European nations filled eight of the top 10 spots on the medals table, with only Australia (two gold medals) and the USA (one bronze) breaking the stranglehold.

Men and women continue to compete in both canoes (where athletes race on one knee using a single paddle) and kayaks (where athletes use a double-ended paddle while sitting) as individuals or as part of a two-person team. Quick reactions, fast thinking, timing, dexterity and physical strength are the key attributes for paddlers negotiating fast currents while twisting and turning through up to 25 gates.

Canoe slalom at the Olympic Games

Canoe slalom made its debut at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games with German paddlers winning all four gold medals on offer. The discipline was, however, dropped for the Montreal 1976 Games and it did not return until the Barcelona 1992 edition. It has been a permanent fixture ever since.

Slovakian twins Pavol and Peter HOCHSCHORNER are the most successful canoe slalom athletes in Olympic Games history, winning three consecutive gold medals in the men’s C2 class, at the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Games. The pair were pushed into the bronze medal position by the two British pairs of Tim BAILLIE and Etienne STOTT (gold medal), and David FLORENCE and Richard HOUNSLOW (silver medal) at the London 2012 Games.

The London 2012 Games – at which France topped the medal table – marked the first time since Atlanta 1996 that a Slovakian athlete did not win at least one gold medal. In total, Slovakian paddlers have claimed seven out of the 20 gold medals available in that time period, including three of the four on offer at the Beijing 2008 Games.

Australian athletes Jessica FOX, Jacqueline LAWRENCE and Robin BELL, and Togo’s Benjamin BOUKPETI are the only paddlers from outside Europe to win an Olympic medal at either of the two most recent Games.

All courses at the Olympic Games have utilised pumped, circulated water, except the Munich 1972 Games and the Atlanta 1996 Games, at which the courses were fed by dam-controlled river water.

Canoe slalom in Brazil

Ana SATILA is the name to know in canoe slalom in Brazil. The 20-year-old won gold at junior level at the 2014 ICF Junior and U23 Canoe Slalom World Championships. She is the sport’s first Brazilian world champion.

SATILA, who was Brazil’s only canoe slalom competitor at the London 2012 Olympic Games, finishing 16th in K1, also picked up a gold in the C1 and a silver in the K1 at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games.

The emergence of world class results is indicative of the world class facilities and coaching that now exist in Brazil.

In 1997 the southern city of Tres Coroas hosted the first of three ICF world championships to take place in Brazil. But it was the construction of the Itaipu Canal near the Iguazu Falls, one of the seven new natural wonders of the world, which transformed the sport at elite level. The national training centre successfully hosted the 2007 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships and the 2015 Junior and U23 ICF World Championships.

Brazilian paddlers Charles CORREA and Anderson OLIVEIRA won bronze at the 2015 U23 World Championships in C2, before adding a silver in the same category at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. Teammates Pedro GONCALVES and Felipe BORGES also won medals in Toronto, claiming a silver in K1 and a bronze in C1 respectively.

BORGES and his fellow Rio 2016 hopefuls have Luiz Augusto MERKLE from Parana state and two Sao Paulo residents, Jose Roberto PUPO and Massimo DESIATI to thank for introducing the sport to the nation in the early 1980s. The first centre for canoe slalom was in the Juquia River, 70km from Sao Paulo. The sport caught on in the wet, water-filled states of the south, principally Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Southerner Gustavo SELBACH won the first major international medal for Brazil, claiming bronze in the 1992 ICF Junior World Championships. The same year, Gustavo joined his brother Leonardo SELBACH as part of Brazil’s first canoe slalom team to compete at the Olympic Games.

The sport is growing in popularity in Brazil, with the Brazil Canoe Federation (CBCa) reporting more than 300 paddlers on the professional circuit in 2015. Following the Rio 2016 Games, the canoe slalom complex in Deodoro will become an elite training centre, with areas accessible for local school children and adults to get involved in the sport.