Canoes and kayaks have been an important means of crossing small stretches of water for transport, hunting and fishing ever since early civilizations hollowed out to trees to use as primitive boats.
The Inuit Eskimos stretched animal skins waterproofed with whale fat over frames made from whalebone and driftwood to create the closed-top kayak, while Native North and South Americans developed the similar open-topped bark canoe for inland waterways.
In the 1860s, British barrister John MacGregor – a noted explorer and travel writer - studied the design of ancient kayaks and built a similar boat with which to travel Europe’s waterways.
Over time, other people were inspired by his design and the Royal Canoe Club was formed in 1865 to hold competitions and regattas. Britons traveling around the world introduced the concept to other countries, helping to spread its popularity so quickly that it soon became an Olympic sport.
Canoeing events were included as a demonstration sport in the 1924 Summer Games in Paris, France, and the founding of the International Canoe Federation prompted the inclusion of canoeing and kayaking as full Olympic sports for the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Germany.
Canoeing and kayaking events were opened up to women for the 1948 Summer Games in London, England. Early events were a combination of sprints and long-distance races, contested over 1000m and 10,000m for men and 5000m for women, but the distances are now fixed at 500m and 1000m
The sport has tended to be dominated by European entrants. Swede Gert Fredriksson dominated the early years of the sport, winning six golds from a total of eight medals between 1948 and 1960. Probably the most famous canoe/kayak competitor of all time, though, is German Birgit Fischer, who won a total of eight gold medals and four silvers between 1980 and 2004 – one of the longest-spanning successful careers of any Olympic female athlete.