The Differences Between Olympic Canoe and Kayak Events

Sprint Canoeing in Rio Olympics

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In Olympic events, it can be tricky to figure out the difference between canoe and kayak events. Sure, traditionally speaking, people could figure out the difference between kayaks and canoes just by looking at the boats, but it’s quite common nowadays for canoes to look like kayaks and vice versa. Thus, it can be difficult for the untrained eye to readily identify whether an Olympic event is a canoe or kayak event.

Below are some of the key distinguishing features of each type of boating event, as well as some information about the different types of water courses. 

Canoe vs. Kayak

  1. Canoe events are labeled “C” and kayak events are labeled “K” in OIympic programs, standings charts, and when reporting results.
  2. Kayaks are propelled with a paddle that has two blades, one on each side of the shaft, while canoe paddles have only one blade. Look at the paddle being used—if there is a handle at one end of the paddle and a blade at the other, this is a canoe event.
  3. In Slalom whitewater events, pay attention to the inside the boat when the paddler is not in it. Kayaks have seats in the bottom of them, while canoes only have a place to kneel.
  4. Slalom kayaks are paddled when sitting down, with the legs stretched out front into the kayak. Slalom canoes are actually paddled while kneeling in the kayak. Since both paddlers are wearing spray skirts, it might not be readily identifiable whether the paddler is kneeling or sitting, but a canoeist’s body will be higher over the boat as he or she will be kneeling while the sitting kayaker will actually sit lower in the boat.
  1. In Flatwater or Sprint events, kayakers will again sit inside of their kayaks; however, sprint canoeists do not fully kneel, unlike in slalom events—canoeists in flatwater events kneel on one knee and have one foot out in front of them for support.

Slalom vs. Flatwater

  1. Slalom events take place in whitewater. Sprint or Flatwater events are in flat water.
  1. Slalom events involve the canoeist or kayaker paddling on a winding course through hanging gates. They must go upstream through some gates and downstream through others, all the while losing points if they touch any gate. The sprint event is a race that is straight down a course with no turns.
  2. Slalom events are timed events, where paddlers go through a course one at a time and times are compared afterward. Sprint or flatwater events are races against other boats competing at the same time.
  3. In slalom events, paddlers where spray skirts to keep the whitewater out of their kayaks; no spray skirts are worn in the sprint events.
  4. The most people that will be in a single boat during a slalom race is two; there can be up to four people in each boat in sprint races.