Since ancient times, cultures across the world have used the canoe for transportation and sport alike. In the American Pacific Northwest, native American tribesmen carved dugout canoes from whole trees large enough to carry as many as 50 people. Further north, Aleuts and other Arctic peoples built kayaks from a framework of whalebone and driftwood, over which were stretched sea lion skins treated with whale fat. The boats were a crucial part of Eskimo survival, necessary for fishing and hunting. Later, early European colonists in the New World built canoes of bark to navigate the wild rivers of North America.
Canoeing got its start as a recreational sport in the 19th century with an English barrister, John MacGregor. MacGregor designed his own Eskimo-style kayak in 1845, and spent much of the next quarter-century taking the boat on extended trips across the rivers and lakes of Europe. During this time, he wrote a popular series of books and delivered lectures describing his canoeing experiences. MacGregor’s adventures spawned many imitators, and in 1866 he founded the Royal Canoe Club to encourage further interest in the new sport. The club held its first regatta the following year and by 1868 boasted 300 enthusiasts and a fully realized set of rules to govern competitive canoe racing. The sport’s popularity spread through Europe and North America, and the New York Canoe Club was founded in 1871.
The sport continued to draw new participants and fans throughout the last decades of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. In 1924, delegates from all the national associations which had sprung up in the preceding half-century met in Copenhagen to establish an international body, the Internationella Representantskapet for Kanotidrott (IRK) to formulate rules for competitive racing worldwide.
In the same year, canoe/kayak made its first Olympic appearance with an exhibition regatta in Paris, as Americans Harry T. Knight, Jr., Karl M. Knight, Charles W. Havens and John F. Larcombe swept the kayak events and finished second behind the Canadian team in all four canoe events. After the success of the exhibition, the IRK looked to get recognition for canoeing as a full medal sport, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejected their proposal for the 1928 Amsterdam Games and again in Los Angeles in 1932.
The association continued to petition the IOC to recognize canoeing, however, and it was added as a full medal sport for the 1936 Berlin Games. That year, 19 nations competed in eight events: the single and pairs kayaks of 1000 and 10,000 meters, single and pairs folding canoes and single and pairs Canadian canoes. It was a less than auspicious debut for the American team, as only one member, Ernie Riedel, reached the medal stand. Riedel won bronze in the 10,000 meter kayak single-man race (since discontinued).
World War II caused considerable disruption in international canoeing. The IRK headquarters in Munich had been destroyed by Allied bombing, and the organization itself was similarly in shambles. In 1946, the body was reorganized into the International Canoe Federation. When the Olympics returned in 1948, only seventeen nations competed. The program was changed as well, with folding canoe events eliminated and a women’s event, the 500-meter kayak singles, added. The Americans fared considerably better in their second taste of Olympic competition, winning a gold medal in the 10,000 meter canoe doubles as well as two silvers. Frank Havens won one of the silvers in the 10,000 meter canoe singles, an event he would win four years later.
With each Olympiad, canoe/kayak has drawn more competitors, and over the years the program has undergone further alterations as well. For the Rome Games in 1956, the 10,000 meter races were eliminated and a relay race (4x500m) for kayak singles was added. Eight years later in Tokyo, the relay race was replaced by a 1000m event for four-man kayaks. In 1972, the program saw its biggest change with the addition of canoe slalom. This event is based on “whitewater” canoeing, where the paddler must contend with torrential rivers coursing along in rapids and falls. Kayak single racers, and Canadian canoe singles and pairs, race down a course over turbulent water, navigating through gates similar to those found on a slalom ski course.
The Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 proved to be the return of Dana Chladek, who had major shoulder surgery just 10 months prior to the Games. Chladek used a brilliant second run to win the silver medal — the first whitewater slalom athlete in history to win medals in two Olympic Games. Chladek’s second run down the course could have been golden, but she inadvertently let her paddle touch one of the poles on the 24th game adding a five second penalty to her score. Still, her run was good enough to tie for the gold medal, but tie breaking procedures factor in the lesser run of each athlete, giving Chladek the silver.