Canoes and kayaks were originally used as a survival tool for ancient peoples living near water. The earliest archaeological evidence of a canoe was discovered in the tomb of a Sumerian king near the Euphrates River, dating back around 6000 years. Canoes were particularly useful to the native North and South American Indians and to the Polynesian islanders of the Pacific, who used canoes of wood and single-bladed paddles to hunt, fish and travel. The Inuit of the Arctic used kayaks for centuries, also to hunt, fish and travel in colder locales. John MacGregor, a 19th century British barrister, studied ancient kayaks and designed a boat of his own to take into the lakes and rivers of Europe’s wilderness. He became a noted travel writer and founded the Royal Canoe Club in 1865. A year later, canoe regattas began, initiating the beginning of the canoe and kayak races now found in the Olympics. Canoe/kayak was first included as a demonstration sport at the 1924 Paris Games and was added as a medal sport in 1936. The first canoe/kayak events were only flatwater events. Whitewater events were first included as official medal contests at the 1972 Games, but the next time whitewater was included on the Olympic program was in 1992. In Rio, there will be 12 flatwater events and four whitewater events.

Top nations

Hungary sits atop the all-time medal chart for canoeing and kayaking, while Germany is not far behind. At the 2012 London Games, the roles were reversed. Germany claimed the most medals (eight), as Hungary finished with six. One of the great rivalries in canoe/kayak at the Olympics is between the two countries in the women’s K-4 500m in flatwater canoeing. With each nation’s four best paddlers in one boat, the victor can claim it has the best kayaking program for the next four years. In five of the last six Games, the countries have finished one-two in the race. Hungary edged Germany in 1992, but from 1996 to 2008, Germany won every gold medal. At the 2012 London Games, Hungary stopped the German streak, winning gold over its rival by less than half a second.

Fastest man on water

The winners of several Olympic events are often bestowed with some of sports’ greatest titles. The men’s 100m in track and field: the fastest man on Earth (Usain Bolt in London). The men’s super heavyweight division in weightlifting: the strongest man on Earth (Iraq’s Behdad Salimi in London). The 2012 London Games featured a new event—the men’s K-200m—that came with a splashy nickname: the fastest man on water. Great Britain’s Ed McKeever took home the first gold medal in the event, traveling at about 15 miles per hour at top speed. After his victory, the British press dubbed McKeever “Usain Bolt of the water.”