The basics – why watch canoe slalom?

Welcome to five days of exhilarating explosive competition that test athletes (paddlers), supreme skill, strength and mental toughness down 300 metres of extreme whitewater. The paddlers race against the clock down the course through up to 25 gates going downstream through green and white gates and upstream through red and white gates. Modelled a little on ski slalom but here the competitors incur a 2 second penalty should they touch a pole suspended over the whitewater from above and a huge 50 second penalty should they incorrectly negotiate a gate.

The Olympic competition is made up of heats where the competitor has two runs down the course and the fastest and cleanest of the two runs is counted. They have no practice, so need to rely on their experience, skill and coaches to learn and ‘visualise’ the course and the exact strokes they will need to use to negotiate the whitewater and the gates! A reduced number of boats qualify for a single semi-final run on day two and a smaller number again for a single run final.

There are four classes of ‘boat’ as we crudely call them. OK, yes technically they are canoes and kayaks. Let me explain. There are two kayak classes: K1M – which is K one men, meaning a man sitting in a closed cockpit kayak with a double bladed paddle; K1W – which is K one women, meaning a female athlete sitting in a closed cockpit kayak with a double ended paddle; C1 – which is C one, meaning currently a man kneeling in a single canoe with a single bladed paddle; C2 – which is C two, meaning two men kneeling in a double canoe each with a single bladed paddle on opposite sides of the boat. I encourage anyone to go to YouTube, www.canoeicf.com, www.sportscene.tv or www.gbcanoeing.org.uk where you will find great videos to explain it visually much better.

From my experience these paddlers have been in the top end of the sport for about 13 years or more, at a team level for more than 10; making them on average about 26 years old. Olympics medallists have usually competed at a previous Olympics and have likely medalled at a previous World Championship or World Cup level. Many were successful junior athletes before they progressed into seniors at 18 years of age. There have been a few exceptions. So in essence these athletes have spent their entire teenage and young adult years to reach this level, much more than just simply since Beijing in 2008. I understand that Stepanka Hilgertova from the Czech Republic may have qualified for London 2012. If so this is utterly incredible. I remember watching her compete in Barcelona 20 years ago. She would be the only canoe slalom paddler to compete in Barcelona in 1992 and London in 2012. Outstanding. I will confirm.

For many successive Olympics since its return to the Games in 1992, Canoe Slalom has consistently been amongst the highest TV viewing figures. It is truly spectacular to watch on TV and the big white water and drops on the Lee Valley Whitewater centre make it the best Olympic level canoe slalom course in the world, according to the paddlers themselves.

Coming up tomorrow the listing analysis of which nations have qualified how many places for the forthcoming Olympic canoe slalom and the 82 individual athletes that have provisionally been nominated and qualified for the Olympics. London2012 tell me today that these are not official until the middle of July.  They are competing for four gold medals, one in each of the four classes: K1M; K1W; C1 and C2.

A subsequent post will provide you a little more background on the origins of canoe slalom, the Olympic canoe slalom history, GB medallists and more.

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