After the Second World War, whitewater kayaking started growing exponentially in popularity, a rise that would peak in the 1970s, with the first Olympic Canoe Slalom in 1972, and big expeditions later. The technology invented or developed for the war had changed everything and would add speed to the evolution in build materials over the next decade or two.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes
Plywood and synthetic glue was around the corner, with the adoption of glassfibre, and designs for home-builders using the new plywood and synthetic glues. But for now, this was a world picking itself up from the debris of ruin, and marshalling forces for the 1948 London Olympics, which featured eight sprint-racing disciplines and, for the first time, a category for women. Czechoslovakia and Sweden dominated, with Britain not medalling in a single event.
Among the hopefuls were Briton Percy Blandford, Frenchman Roger Paris and Czech Milo Duffek, all three of whom failed to qualify for the Games, but would go on to be among to exert a huge influence on kayaking over the next two decades, Blandford through his books (113 of them!) enabling DIY-ers to build canoes and kayaks at home, the other two for making advances in river-running and slalom techniques and for spreading those skills around the world – particularly to the USA.
A year later, the first World Canoe Slalom Championships were held in Switzerland, attracting 96 competitors from seven nations. The event was held biennially until 1999, after which it was held annually, barring Olympic years, and runs to this day. Whitewater canoeing had been growing as a summer alpine sport throughout the 1930s, despite, according to some sources, efforts by Hitler to dismantle canoeing clubs.
This is rather thrown into doubt given that the 1936 Olympics featured nine canoeing and kayaking events (sprint only). Either way, runs were made in folding boats that would still challenge some paddlers today, although it was not until after the war (1952) that one of the pioneers of that age, Walter Sneck, published his book In Den Schluchten Europas (In the Canyons of Europe). Its grey linen cover depicting a line drawing of a kayaker in whitewater left no doubt as to its contents.
Roger Paris had been affected by the war too, his family displaced to the south of the country, but he his father bought a canoe and in it, Roger started to negotiate the various manmade rapids that had been caused by bombed bridges falling into otherwise placid rivers, aided by his coach and mentor Andre Pean. After the war, he took off for the then epicentre of the kayaking world, the Alps, with his brother.
He ran a number of rivers, including many first descents (and last descents, due to the Alpine damming programme), including, according to one source, the Upper Isere, the Upper Arc and La Rue. Paris was initially a C-1 and C-2 paddler, winning second in the C-2 category with partner Claude Neveu at those first slalom worlds in 1949, then gold in 1951.
In 1952, he travelled with coach and partner to the USA where the sport was undeveloped, to compete at the annual ‘Salida Race’, a downriver event on Colorado’s Arkansas River. While stateside, they also ticked off a number of first descents, including Browns Canyon, today a classic G3-4 raft run, the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas, and many more, including the first serious whitewater runs in California. He settled in America in the mid-60s, setting up the Roger Paris kayaking school and promulgating the sport to thousands.
His career path was similar in ways to that of Milo Duffek, a Czech athlete who emerges as the most influential paddler of the 1950s. His story, like Paris’s, is intimately woven to the Second World War, after which the so-called ‘iron curtain’ descended over Europe, dividing free-market west from communist east. Duffek’s predicament was that he was stuck on, as he saw it, the wrong side of the divide, so although he qualified for the 1948 Olympics (flat-water racing), he was never permitted to leave Czechoslovakia to take part.
That changed in 1953, with the slalom world cup in Merano, Italy. Duffek was allowed to attend under the supervision of a guard who travelled to the event with him. This was an extraordinary event for two reasons. Firstly, Duffek unveiled his hanging draw pivot turn, known to British paddlers of a certain vintage as a bow rudder, and to Americans, still, as the Duffek stroke. The question seemed to be not if Duffek would win – but by how much.
According to Bill Endicott, himself an influential competitive paddler, coach and historian of later years, Duffek deliberately threw the race by touching a pole to remove himself from the attention that a podium finish would bring. That night, his guard got drunk in the celebrations and Duffek escaped with the Swiss team in the dead of night. He threw the race to win his freedom, defecting to Switzerland, where he became a naturalized resident.
His many subsequent triumphs in world slalom are not really the focus of this series (which focuses on non-competitive whitewater kayaking), but like Paris, he helped introduce more advanced techniques to the USA: among them were front-surfing waves, rolling, ferry-gliding and, of course, the Duffek stroke. He is also credited with being the first to apply moving water technique to flatwater training.
His long career, which lasted until the early 1980s, spanned three construction eras – folding skin boat, glassfibre and plastic. He, along with Paris, is also the first on our list to still be alive today, and can be considered, perhaps, as the first paddler of the modern era.
In writing this article, I am entirely indebted to research by the BCU, ICF, Bill Endicott and Kayak Session magazine.