Messing About in Boats
Imagine a boat which you can fit into a backpack and take camping with you. In the early 1900s, Johann Klepper imagined exactly that and began to manufacture folding kayaks.
Klepper’s factory was in a prime location, in the town of Rosenheim on the river Inn. The Inn flows into a much larger river downstream – it is a tributary of the mighty Danube.
The folding kayak started a craze for canoeing holidays, which spread through Germany and central Europe. When canoeing became an Olympic sport in 1936, nearly all of the medals were won by Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hungary was a slow starter in comparison with its neighbours but it would claim its first Olympic medals in 1952.
With the exception of Germany, all of these countries are landlocked but they do all have the advantage of being situated on the river Danube. Of the four, Hungary is particularly blessed as the Danube passes magnificently through its capital city, Budapest (below).
Klepper’s canoe was so pervasive that the 1936 Games even included events for folding kayaks. The tiny fragile canoe had tamed the fearsome Danube and turned it into an ally.
A river is not strictly necessary. Sweden was another early Olympic canoeing power and many of its medallists have come from Nykoping, a small town on the east coast. There, the sport is so popular that it now has an international canoeing stadium in its harbour.
A fjord will also do. In recent years, Flekkefjord in Norway, with a population of 8,000, has produced three of the country’s greatest canoeists, including Eirik Veras Larsen. A fjord passes right through the middle of the town which surely is a factor in its success.
But for Hungary it was the Danube, an advantage which was intensified by communism, and the illicit investment in amateur sport which it brought. Austria could not keep up.
Czechoslovakia took a different course, a much less calm one, specialising in whitewater canoeing. This resulted in a rapid descent of its competitiveness on flatter waters but it created a canoe slalom legacy that continues in the Czech Republic and Slovakia today.
The Soviet Union, with many major rivers to rival the Danube, became another medal-winning power of the Cold War era. And another communist country had an impact too.
Imagine if Johann Klepper had taken one of his kayaks and paddled it the whole length of the Danube, a distance of nearly 1,800 miles. He would eventually have come out into the Black Sea, with the last part of his journey visiting a little known part of Romania.
The importance of the Danube in Olympic canoeing history is most strikingly illustrated by the story of that remote location, and it will be the subject of next week’s blog post.