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When it comes to the sport of canoeing, one nation stands out. Germany, the country that hosted the full Olympic debuts of both canoe disciplines (sprint and slalom) has also won more than 100 Olympic medals in the two forms: 48 golds, 34 silvers and 33 bronzes in all. At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – the first to held in South America – the German team will no doubt be out to maintain its old dominance on new waters.
In canoe sprint, the Germans sit proudly on top of the Olympic medal table, with 40 golds, 29 silvers and 26 bronzes. Then comes the former Soviet Union (29 golds, 13 silvers and nine bronzes), followed by Hungary (22 golds, 29 silvers and 26 bronzes). In canoe slalom, Germany is once again the leader, with eight golds, five silvers and seven bronzes. Slovakia is next (seven golds, two silvers and three bronzes), followed by France (six golds, three silvers and seven bronzes).
Rio will be the stage for paracanoe’s debut in the Paralympic Games, when the sport will take place on the waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the same venue as the Olympic canoe sprint and rowing competitions. In the four editions of the World Paracanoe Championships held so far, the most successful nation has been Great Britain (11 golds, four silvers and four bronzes), followed by Brazil (seven golds, three silvers and two bronzes) and Canada (six golds, three silvers and three bronzes).
Sprint – or flatwater – was the first type of canoeing to feature in the Olympic programme. It began as a demonstration sport at the Paris 1924 Games and but did not enter the official programme until three editions later, at the Berlin 1936 Games, with only men competing. Women first competed at the London 1948 Games.
The aim of the competitions is simple: to complete the race – disputed on calm waters – in a straight line, in the least possible time. The competition types differ in terms of the type of vessel – canoe or kayak – the number of athletes in them – one, two or four – and the distance – 200, 500 or 1000 metres.
Canoe slalom also made its Olympic debut in Germany, but not until the Munich 1972 Games. However, it then remained off the programme for 20 years, not returning definitively until the Barcelona 1992 Games. The competitions, inspired by slalom skiing, take place on artificial or semi-artificial ‘whitewater’ courses, using both canoes and kayaks. Women and men compete in singles kayak races, while men also compete in canoe singles and doubles. The vessels must go twice around the 300-metre course, as indicated by numbers and arrows placed on hanging gates, and this often involves rowing against the current. There are time penalties, which are added to each competitor’s course time.
The new Paralympic sport of paracanoe follows sprint canoe’s race system, using both canoes and kayaks, with the races taking place on 200-metre courses. Competition categories are defined by the parts of the body that athletes use to propel the vessel: arms, torso and legs; just torso and arms; and only arms.