A Viewers Guide to Canoe-Kayak at the Tokyo Olympics
It’s hard to believe but the 2020 Olympic Games are finally upon us, a year late in 2021. Of course, that means from August 2 – 7 we’ll see Olympic canoe-kayak competition for the first time in five years. I thought I’d write a preview for those that aren’t totally familiar with the sport but enjoy getting out on the water with a paddle in their hands. The reality is, whether you do your paddling on a stand-up paddleboard, some type of touring kayak or a surf ski, there is a lot of similarity to what you’re doing and what you’ll see at the Olympics. It’s just a case of the Olympic athletes having made their sport the most important thing in their lives for the last 8 years or so, working incredibly hard, and being extremely good at it.
Sprint canoe-kayak events have appeared in the Olympic program at every games since Berlin in 1936. Over the years the events have changed and more women’s events have been added. In fact, Tokyo will be the first time that women will be racing canoe events!
Historically the sport has been dominated by Europeans and in particular the East Bloc who, during the cold war years, devoted tons of resources into their Olympic sports as a means to try to legitimize their political system. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in Europe, Hungary and some of the former Soviet Republics in particular have remained very strong. Germany continues to be one of the stronger nations across all of the events.
Other western European countries have historically been strong in some events, while weaker in others. The same can be said for Canada and the United States. Since 1980 Australia and New Zealand have had some very notable successes in men’s kayak events and New Zealand the women’s kayak events as well. China has, since 2004, been very successful in some men’s canoe events and their women’s program in both canoe and kayak has grown stronger as well. In South America, Brazil has recently grown quite strong in the men’s canoe events.
Canoe-kayak slalom events (white water through gates) were added in 1972 and then dropped again until 1992 when they became permanent events. These slalom events were added without increasing the quota of canoe-kayak athletes so now there are fewer sprint events in each games as the total quota of athletes must be shared between sprint and slalom. This has resulted in some traditional events being dropped to make room for women’s canoe.
For the purpose of this preview we’ll stick to a discussion of the sprint events.
The sport consists of races on an 8-lane course for both canoes and kayaks over distances of 200m, 500m and 1000m. Lanes are marked by buoys every 10m or 12.5m so paddling down a lane on the course is a lot like driving in your lane on the highway. Starts are from starting gates which hold the nose of the boats until the starter’s command and then drop out of the way into the water.
Paddlers must stay in their lanes and in fact must stay a minimum or 5m away from paddlers on either side of them. Wash riding of any kind is forbidden and results in disqualification.
Canoe events are in singles (C1) and doubles (C2). A cool bit of trivia is that the “C” does not stand for canoe but rather “Canadian”. Paddlers high kneel on one knee with the other foot in front of them and paddle only on one side using a single blade paddle. There is no rudder or mechanical steering device so paddlers must use their paddle to steer.
Kayak events are in singles (K1), doubles (K2) and fours (K4). A cool bit of trivia is that the K4 is the fastest boat made for paddling. Men’s K4s have towed water skiers behind them. Kayak paddlers sit down and use a double blade paddle. Kayaks have rudders for steering similar to surf skis and the first person in the boat controls the rudder with his or her feet.
Currently, the sprint events consist of:
- K1 200m
- K1 1000m
- K2 1000m
- K4 500m
- C1 1000m
- C2 1000m
- K1 200m
- K1 500m
- K2 500m
- K4 500m
- C1 200m
- C2 500m
Historically there has only been one entry per event per country, however in Tokyo for the first time there will be two entries per country allowed in singles events, only if the second entry is an athlete racing in one of the crew events in that discipline.
The field at the Olympics is quite condensed compared to what one would see at a World Championships as countries must qualify boats in the various events at the Olympics at the World Championships in the year before or at a regional qualifier. This qualification process is intended to keep the total number of canoe-kayak athletes in the Olympic Village to a minimum, hence what you see on the starting line at the Olympic Games, even in the opening heats, is the best of the best.
From the preliminary heats, boats will advance to semi-finals or directly to the final depending on the event and the total number of qualified entries, with 8 boats in the final and the next 8 in a “B-final”.
What to look for
It’s always a bit difficult to make medals predictions as the “once every 4 years” nature of the Olympics always makes for some interesting results. Favourites who have dominated the events at the World Championships between Olympic Games have as often been upset as won in their Olympic race. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for young athletes to emerge from obscurity and win, seemly out of nowhere, at the Olympics. These races truly epitomize the “anything can happen in sport” adage.
For Tokyo, in 2021, it is even more difficult to make predictions because high level international racing has been so affected by COVID over the last 18 months. Eighteen months is an eternity at the highest level. Veteran athletes who were trying to hang on for one last Olympics have suddenly had to entertain the notion of training an entire extra year just to compete. Many have not been able to hang on that long. Younger athletes on the verge of international stardom but not quite ready to win their country’s Olympic entry have suddenly been granted an extra year to mature. And of course, the number of world events in which the majority of teams have been able to send their best to compete have been limited over the last 18 months because of COVID. We don’t even know whether all the athletes entered will make the starting line for their events as, at the time of writing, there were COVID cases within the Olympic Village.
So rather than try to make predictions for each event I’ll instead share a few things to look for when you’re watching.
As with every Olympics there will be athletes racing who’ve done it all before, multiple times. Here are a few to watch:
Sebastian Brendel, Germany
Brendel is no stranger to those who follow SUP, having raced at numerous events over the last few years in Europe and the ICF SUP World Championships in China in 2019. He’s the Olympic Champion in C1 1000m from both London 2012 and Rio 2016 as well as in C2 1000m in Rio. He’s a beast and at 33 hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’ll again be racing both the C1 and C2 1000m.
Lisa Carrington, New Zealand
Carrington is the Olympic Champion is women’s K1 200m from both London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. She’s actually undefeated in K1 200m since 2011. In Tokyo expect to see her defend her title in K1 200m. She will also be racing K4 500m and probably K1 500m as well so has a chance to hit the podium three times.
Liam Heath, Britain
Heath is the defending Olympic Champion in K1 200m after winning in Rio in 2016. Interestingly, just to get the Rio entry he had to beat the defending Olympic Champion from London 2012, his countryman, Ed McKeever. Heath is the 2019 World Champion in this event and is the favourite to win again in Tokyo.
Though not necessarily new to racing at the highest level as they’ve raced at the World Championships, the Olympics are a unique event with an entirely different level of pressure that sees some rise to the occasion and some collapse. Here are some athletes that will be dealing with this level of pressure for the first time.
Nevin Harrison, United States
At 17, Harrison shocked the paddling world by crushing the women’s C1 200m final at the 2019 World Championships. Now, at 19, she’s going to try to do it again in the C1 200m. She’s the lone American entry in canoe-kayak sprint and definitely one of the favourites in her event.
Women’s Canoe Athletes
This is the first Olympic Games in which women will be competing in canoe events, despite having been racing at the World Championships for the last decade. There are lots of interesting subplots to these races. Can the Canadian women, who were the strongest for much of the last decade maintain their spot on the podium? Or have the women from other countries, who were rapidly closing the gap, caught up? Who will be the first women canoe athletes to be crowned Olympic Champions?
Others things to watch out for
Here are a few other things to watch out for as you watch the races and track the results.
Balance of Power
There always seem to be one or two countries that dominate the races within a discipline or even across all of the disciplines. In Rio, Hungary won 3 of the 4 women’s events and Germany 3 of the 6 men’s events.
More recently, at the 2019 World Championships China and New Zealand emerged as winners of multiple events, with China winning the men’s C2 1000m and women’s C2 500m and New Zealand winning the women’s K1 200m and 500m.
Will there be a dominant country? Will there be athletes who become multiple medalists or Olympic Champions?
Paddle Monster ties
Those who are Paddle Monster subscribers will be interested to follow the Chinese women in the canoe events as Paddle Monster coach Andrey Kraytor was the technique coach for the Chinese women’s canoe team through most of their Olympic preparation. If you haven’t seen Andrey race C1 200m it is worth a look at a race or two on YouTube. It’s impressive (as is watching him race 200m SUP). It’ll be really interesting to see how much the Chinese women resemble Andrey from a technique perspective when they are racing and, of course, how well they do.
For those that have been Paddle Monster subscribers going way back you’ll recognize the name Teneale Hatton. Teneale was a Paddle Monster surf ski coach from 2016 to 2017 before opting to focus on her own paddling. She’ll be racing in the K4 500m for New Zealand. We congratulate her on making the team and wish her all the luck in the world pursuing her Olympic dream.
Racing in canoe-kayak sprint starts in week two, running from August 2 – 7. I’ll write a recap after each day’s competition highlighting the results. I hope you’ll join me in watching what is sure to be great racing!