The all seeing eye – The Judge

Today we continue the theme of looking at the different roles of those that make Olympic canoe slalom a success. We focus on the role of the Judge and explain in more depth the rules of canoe slalom.

Campbell Walsh, Olympic Silver Medallist. Did his head and boat pass through the gate without fault? Tough call! (Photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Like many aspects of the sport it too has evolved since canoe slalom reappeared in the Olympic programme in 1992. At the same time the rules of the sport have changed with the length of the boats becoming shorter, penalties changed from the old 5 second penalty to 2 second penalty after the Sydney Olympics and most recently a black band has appeared around the base of each pole to allow the judges to more easily distinguish the base of the pole from the water behind it. The rules also allow a gate with a single pole suspended above the water. The second inside pole would be found hanging over the bank at the side of the course. Video technology is now employed to allow examination of video replay to ensure penalties are justified. This is managed through a Technical Video Service who have cameras mounted to relay back video images to a section of the Scoring Office. This is independent of any commercial TV coverage.

The overall race is governed by the ICF Chief Judge and jury who have final control of the race. Top level experienced international judges watch each paddler down the course of gates to determine whether the paddler touches the gate poles and also correctly negotiate the gate. There is a 2 second penalty for touching a pole, irrespective of how many times or whether one or both poles on the same gate are touched. A 50 second penalty is awarded when a paddler fails to correctly negotiate a gate, for which there are several potential reasons, but are effectively game over for the paddler on that run. In the heats there is a second chance as qualification is based on the best result from the two runs, in the semi-final which is only one run, a 50 second penalty will mean the paddler fails to qualify for the final or immediately miss out on a medal. The paddler must ensure that their head and part of the boat pass through the gateline simultaneously, once only, in the correct direction. A 50 second penalty can be awarded if the paddlers boat but not their head of body pass through the gate, or if their head and none of the boat, if they are upside down as they pass under the gateline, miss a gate entirely, deliberately displace the gate to allow negotiation or hit a subsequent gate, e.g. gate 12, before attempting gate 11.

The wrong side of gate 22. (Photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The gates are marked as red and white (upstream) or green and white (downstream) together with a number board identifying both the numerical order of the gate and the side from which it should be approached. The back (wrong side) of the gate has a red line through the number showing that correct passage is from the other side of the gate. The position of the gate is firmly fixed to ensure they are unable to move between paddlers. They are also weighted a little so that they are less affected by wind, as it is tougher for the paddler to cleanly negotiate a swinging pole than one that is motionless. Poles can on occasion be set in motion by the water for which the paddler is not penalized. The whitewater can though cause the boat to bounce up under the pole and therefore the paddler needs to keep their boat balance and paddles upright to avoid any touches. As noted in a previous post, Richard Fox had a classic style of always passing through the centre of the gateline while Sydney Olympic medallist Paul Ratcliffe had a known style for ducking and diving around poles, which Scott Simpson described as too high risk for most athletes.

Gate Judge with the yellow 2 second and red 50 second disc (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Analysis of canoe slalom has previously shown that penalties are more common on the bottom portion of the course as the paddler’s lactic acid builds and one penalty can often knock a paddler off their mental rehearsed plan and sometimes more than one penalty is seen in short succession.

Penalties are communicated by the Gate Judges using a yellow disc or card marked with a figure 2, and red card or disc marked with figure 50. The judging duties are spread amongst a technical team of Gate Judges and Transmission Judges along the course and relayed through keypads, headsets and paper back to the Scoring Office. On complex gates there could be multiple Gate Judges all who have a different view of the gate. There is a very sizeable technical team of officials working behind the scenes, which also includes the timing team.

The Chief Judge signs off on the official results. The paddler’s equipment is also checked at the end of each run against the requirements, ensuring that the boat meets the respective minimum weight requirement and that the PDF and helmet meet the standard.

A National Federation Team Manager can announce an intention to submit a protest on behalf of a paddler in his national team, then providing in writing clear explanation as to why it is felt that the penalty is not valid. This is reviewed by the Chief Judge who may refer to the Video Judge. Appeals (which are rare) may be submitted to the jury if the rules are disputed but not against matters of fact. The decision of the jury is final. The full ICF rules can be accessed through the ICF website .

To win a medal the paddler needs to be fast and likely clean, meaning no penalties. As the run times have continued to get shorter the possibility to win or medal with a 2 second penalty is very remote. The Canadian Doubles, C2, presents a unique challenge for the Judges. Both paddlers must successfully negotiate the gate without either paddler touching the poles. It is amazing to see these big boats cleanly negotiating tight upstream gates with precision.

World Cup Race 1. Clear or 50 second penalty? What does the Video Judge think? (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Tomorrow will look at the resources available at the Olympic Lee Valley venue for the national teams. Comments welcome here on @gregiej on Twitter.



Support from the bank: The coach

The coach plays a pivotal role in supporting the athlete towards that ‘Ultimate Run’. However, this is not a short term partnership as the coach and athlete will have spent years working together to hone their performance. Each of the major nations competing at Lee Valley starting on Sunday has strong management and coaching support teams, who have been working for years to develop future paddlers towards podium finishes.

Tim Baillie & Etienne Stott in training in winter training at Lee Valley (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The sport has developed significantly since it reappeared in the Barcelona Olympics. At that time Great Britain had a strong heritage of World Championship medal performances and important developments in the quality of coaching. In 1992, the more affluent nations already had the availability of basic video cameras for video analysis. This is an area that has subsequently developed considerably in the last 20 years together with harnessing sport science to improve top level performance. One technical innovation was the use video analysis. “Dartfish software now helps us analyse and review our video footage” says Nick Smith, Technical Coach C2 Class, Podium Programme at GB Canoeing. Campbell Walsh, Olympic Silver Medallist from Beijing described how he has been using Dartfish for many years in both training and races to help choose the best lines and boat positions on the river. “We heavily use the split screen head-head function and slow motion with different racers to determine which lines are proving to be the most consistently fast. The differences in angle or position are too often too subtle to notice if we didn’t have this ability to watch both simultaneously and at a slower speed. We will use video clips from the demonstration runs before I race and use myself verses rivals in between my 2 competition runs. Then we look at the fastest on each section after the race as part of the review and learning process. In training, when I will complete the same sequence of gates many times with different techniques, I often using the split screen with the option of watching up to 4 clips on head-head to help understand the differences and determine which was faster”. Some examples of this technology can be found on YouTube or through the Sportscene website.

At a more basic coaching level the coach is able to walk the course that has been set and discuss how the water moves through the gatelines and the likely options or key strokes necessary to complete. In training the paddler can then run down the course, with the coach providing them feedback on what they actually did versus the ideal. Split times of different paddlers on one specific sequence of gates can be used to uncover where some paddlers are making up time or to evaluate different options. Again, in training the coaches are able to set a course of gates to challenge and test the paddlers.

David Florence on the podium following his C1 win at The Cardiff World Cup race (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

At the national team levels, the coaches are invariably ex-elite paddlers themselves. The GB Podium coaches are led by Jurg Gotz, the Swiss national team member 1974-1984 who has coached paddlers at all 5 of the last Olympics. He heads a team of technical coaches: Paul Ratcliffe, Sydney Olympic silver medallist; Mark Delaney, Barcelona & Atlanta C1 paddler who coached David Florence to silver in Beijing and Nick Smith, Sydney & Athens C2 paddler. London2012 will mark the fourth Olympic Games led by GB Canoeing Performance Director, John Anderson MBE. Beyond the technical coaches the team is also supported by an extensive group of performance lifestyle advisor, strength & conditioning specialist, programme manager, physiotherapist, sports psychologist and performance analyst. Nick Smith added; “We gain an uplifting feeling of helping these athletes culminate years of work and preparation for the biggest event in our sport.”

Many of the coaches at a club level are ex-paddlers or parents of paddlers. The UK has an extensive club coaching scheme and network. The role of the coach involves hours standing on cold and wet river banks. Russ Smith, National Competition Development Coach for Canoe England and who himself won a gold medal in the K1M team event at the 1987 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in Bourg St Maurice said; “As to the opportunities for coaching slalom I believe that the Olympics being in the UK will open up our sport to a whole new batch of potential paddlers and coaches/parents. The spectacle of whitewater slalom being seen either live or via TV beamed straight into the home is truly a sight to see. For those who would wish to get involved in coaching try the UK Home Nation websites (below) or more information on slalom coaching can be obtained through Jimmy Jayes, a British National Champion in the 1980’s and a prominent figure in slalom coaching commented; “The technical knowledge of the coaches and athletes is still the deciding factor in performing well. This needs to have been made 100% solid in training and previous races and then carried over to be automatic for the BIG EVENT!” Nick concludes by describing what will make the Olympic medallists; “As usual in our sport, a bit of luck with the water but over and above is a calm head and ability to deliver on the hardest of whitewater courses.”

Tomorrow’s post will look at the role of the Judge in canoe slalom and describe more specifics of the rules of the sport. Please comment here or via @gregiej on Twitter.

Junior/ U23s on the rise

Last week saw the Junior & U23 canoe slalom World Championships wrap up in Wausau, Wisconsin, USA with the Czech Republic taking home 13 medals, followed by Australia and then France in the medal standings. Both the Czechs and Australian’s finished with 4 golds each. Today’s post looks at these Junior & U23 World’s as well as previous World’s to see what this can tell us about the prospects at Lee Valley starting in just over a week as well as future Olympics.

Three of the paddlers from this month’s Junior & U23 World’s are amongst the athletes competing at London2012. They are Jessica Fox(Australia), Casey Eichfeld (USA) and Caroline Queen (USA). These youngsters should not be discounted, Jessica Fox, now 18, was the Girls Youth Olympic K1 slalom champion in 2010, is double Junior K1W canoe slalom World Champion and has just been described by the ICF as “the most successful paddler at the [Wausau] championships”, winning 3 gold’s (K1W, C1W and C1Team), 22 year old Casey Eichfeld returns for his second Olympic Games, and although Caroline Queen is looking for her first podium finish at top level international canoe slalom she became the youngest woman to make the US Slalom National team at age 15.


Jessica Fox, 18, on the podium at the Cardiff World Cup race. Now Junior K1W and C1 champion (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

I took a quick scan through the previous World’s results and UK Slalom Yearbooks. Of the British Olympic canoe slalom medallists: Gareth Marriott won Junior World’s in 1987; Paul Ratcliffe won Junior Pre-World’s in 1991 and Helen Reeves won Junior World’s in 1996. See a pattern? Lizzie Neave won a bronze team medal at the Junior World’s in 2004.

Lizzie Neave, 25, representing Great Britain at her first Olympics. K1W J14 champion when Paul Ratcliffe was winning Silver in Sydney (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

When Paul Ratcliffe was winning silver in Sydney, Lizzie Neave was already competing in Division 1 in the UK becoming K1W Junior under 14 championship winner  and then by 2005, still as a junior (J18), she won the first of her three British National Championships. Similarly Richard Hounslow was the K1M Junior under 14 champion in 1995. So what is a good age to start? Well back in 2001 I did an interview for Canoe Kayak UK magazine with Janine Dickie who at the time had become the youngest paddler ever to reach Divison 1 at just 11 years of age! As suggested before Olympic Champion Tony Estanguet talks about starting to paddle at the age of 5 and by age 16, Michal Martikan had already won his first Senior World Champion medal.

This suggests that the current Junior World athletes are those from whom to expect Olympic medals in 5-10 years, so Rio in 2016, and then in either Istanbul, Tokyo or Madrid in 2020. Look out for the following winners from this year’s Junior World’s: KIW/C1W Jessica Fox (Australia); C1M Cedric Joly (France) and C2 Pavol Kavolkov & Artem Bogdanov (Russia). The most successful nations at Olympic canoe slalom competition so far are; France (14 medals – 4 gold), Slovakia (10 medals – 7 gold), Germany (9 medals – 4 gold), Czech Republic (7 medals – 2 gold) and Great Britain (5 medals – 4 silver & 1 bronze). Interesting to see that above France and Czech Republic are still strong.

Tomorrow’s post will give some practical tips to getting to Lee Valley and what to expect at this stunning new whitewater canoe slalom venue. Comments are welcome here or @gregiej on Twitter.

K1M – Kayak Men’s Single

As promised I will spend the next four days looking at the four different classes. Then on Friday I will post on the basic terms of canoe slalom competition and the slalom techniques (basic and more advanced). If you are new to Canoe Slalom you will know what to look out for and sound as though you have been doing it for years. If you have paddled for ages, well done and keep practising!

Today – is K1M (pronounced kay-one-men), meaning a male athlete paddling a single one seater closed cockpit kayak. Let’s look at the equipment, pros and cons and some top paddlers past and present to look out for.

Richard Hounslow K1M on his way to win selection at Lee Valley in April (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The kayak paddler is sitting in a seat with the legs stretched out in front of them against moulded knee braces, foam padding and footrests. The footrests are potentially the most important fixture of the boat. It is not really possible to paddle down a whitewater course such as Lee Valley without footrests and it would be almost impossible to negotiate the slalom gates. The kayak paddler is effectively wearing the boat rather than simply sitting in it and so transferring the power of the paddling to propel the kayak or change its direction.

The rules of canoe slalom define the specification of the boats, in kayak this means the kayak must be 350cm long, 60cm wide and weigh not less than 9kg. The kayak length has reduced from 4 metres to 350cm and this has caused the sport to evolve.  The single kayak is the fastest in a straight line however in slalom the boat rarely runs straight for more than a few strokes. Also the shorter boats, shorter and bigger whitewater courses means that the run times are getting much tighter between K1M, C1 and C2. I will explain more over the coming days. With modern carbon construction it is quite feasible to manufacture the kayak less than 9kg. The boat is made up to the 9kg minimum weight by adding extra under the seat. This causes the boat to spin faster than it would do than if the weight were evenly distributed along its length. The kayaks will be weighed at the end of each run at the Olympic Games, to ensure that emptied of water they meet the required minimum weight.

In his book ‘Every Second Counts’, Jimmy Jayes described that K1M were doing an average 80 strokes per minute in the gates and up to 130 strokes per minute at the start and finish. Men generally have wider shoulders and slightly taller upper bodies and this means they have a greater muscle mass and longer levers than female paddlers. At times the men can rely on strength rather than superior technique.

Olympic K1M Silver Medallist Campbell Walsh at the Cardiff World Cup race (photo courtesy of Michael Barrett)

The kayak paddles have a blade on each end, which you may see from the pictures are offset between 40-90 degrees either clockwise or anticlockwise. So paddlers are either left of right handed. Some paddlers use a cranked or Double Torque shaft which is not straight and is believed to reduce the strain on the wrist and allow greater pull. The paddles are all made of carbon which is stiff and transfers the power and helps pull the boat towards the blade.The paddler wears a spraydeck which at this level are all made of neoprene. They are worn by the paddler around their chest/waist and seal around the cockpit of the kayak. They stop water getting in to the boat. The paddlers legs and the inside of the boat remain dry and this also keeps the boat running fast as it is not carrying the extra weight of any water.

Great Britain has shown a great depth over the 60 years in K1M at the World and Olympics. The GB World Championship individual medallists are:

Paul Farrant (Gold 1959 Geneva), David Mitchell (Silver 1967 Lipno), Albert Kerr (Gold 1977 Spittal), Richard Fox (Bronze 1979 Jonquiere, Gold 1981 Bala, Gold 1983 Merano, Gold 1985 Augsburg, Gold 1989 Savage River & Gold 1993 Mezzana), Shaun Pearce (Gold 1991 Tacen), Melvyn Jones (Bronze 1993 Mezzana), Paul Ratcliffe (Bronze 1997 Tres Coroas & Bronze 1999 La Seu D’Urgell) and Campbell Walsh (Bronze 2006 Prague & Foz do Iguacu).

GB Team K1M medallists are:

Geoffrey Dinsdale, Dave Mitchell & Martin Rohleder (Bronze 1963 Spittal), Ken Langford, Ray Calverley & John MacLeod (Silver 1969 Bourg St Maurice), Richard Fox, Albert Kerr & Alan Edge (Gold 1979 Jonquiere), Richard Fox, Albert Kerr & Nicky Wain (Gold 1981 Bala), Richard Fox, Paul McConkey & Jim Dolan (Gold 1983 Merano), Richard Fox, Melvyn Jones & Russ Smith (Gold 1987 Bourg St Maurice), Richard Fox, Melvyn Jones & Shaun Pearce (Gold 1993 Mezzana), Andy Raspin, Shaun Pearce & Ian Raspin (Bronze 1995 Nottingham), Paul Ratcliffe, Ian Raspin & Shaun Pearce (Gold 1997 Tres Coroas), Campbell Walsh, Huw Swetnam & Richard Hounslow (Silver 2009 La Seu D’Urgell).

GB Olympic K1M medallists are:

Paul Ratcliffe (Silver 2000 Sydney) and Campbell Walsh (Silver 2004 Athens).

See my previous posts for my Punters Guide to Olympic Form and analysis of the paddlers from other nations to watch. Tomorrow’s post will look at the K1W.

Go Go Team GB!

OK, let me indulge for the day with a little more UK flavour. There are five paddlers selected by the British Olympic Association to represent Team GB at the Olympic Canoe Slalom at Lee Valley. They are:

K1M: Richard Hounslow

K1W: Lizzie Neave

C1: David Florence

C2: Richard Hounslow & David Florence and Etienne Stott & Tim Baillie

As you may know if you have been following this blog from the start, Great Britain is the only nation to have qualified a fifth boat in canoe slalom for the Olympics, nine other nations have four boats and the remaining twenty nations between 1-3 boats respectively. So why I hear you ask? Well, for a new Olympic Games commencing London 2012 if the selected pair in C2 have also been selected in the individual classes then the nation is entitled to qualify a second mens C2 boat to the Games. Richard and David had qualified for the individual K1M and C1 classess respectively, so can also paddle C2 at the Olympics. Incidentally they also won GB Team selection in C2, but the rule allows Team GB to send a second C2 crew of Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie.

David, Richard, Tim and Etienne congratulate each other at end of GB Team selection. Photo courtesy of Michael Barnett

So in C2, the number of boats at the Olympics has risen from 12 to 13 and Great Britain has two C2 crews amongst the 13 at the start of the heats. Looks good. Better still when both crews have medalled at previous World Championships together in the team event and David & Richard have taken a win at the 2012 World Cup race. From memory, I think Fabien Lefevre from France is the only athlete that comes to my mind to compete at a World Championship in two classes. David & Richard I believe will be the first paddlers to compete in two classes at the Olympics in canoe slalom. There has been much discussion about whether this is physically and mentally possible or whether an athlete should choose and focus on only one class. Well the proof is that both David and Richard are in exceptional shape and mentally tough. They have proven through previous World Championships, World Cup races and GB Team selection that they can handle it. It does of course also give them extra water time on the course compared to other athletes so could present an advantage.

David Florence, 29, who like Tim Baillie also hails from Aberdeen, Scotland moved down to the area to train full time on the course, juggling the demands of C1 and C2. He brings experience to the team as the only one of the five Team GB paddlers competing in Lee Valley to have competed in a previous Olympic Games, from which David won a C1 silver medal in Beijing. Like Lizzie Neave he had become British Champion back in 2005 which he held for the next two seasons. He starts the heat of London2012 as the ICF World ranked number 1 in C1 following a win at the first World Cup race in Cardiff and silver in La Seu D’Urgell. He appreciates that whilst every athlete is on their own to lay down the ultimate run, Michal Martikan and Tony Estanguet also come with exceptional experience and flare. David has beaten them both in the past and was World Cup series champion in 2009.

Richard Hounslow, 30, is the local amongst the Canoe Slalom team having grown up in Harrow. He is a former British National Champion. He and David did not start competing together in C2 until the 2009 season, when he became one of the first paddlers to compete in K1 and C2 classes. In 2010, Richard and David won bronze at both World and European Championships in the C2. This was highly significant in UK C2 terms. It is the first and only individual C2 World Championship medal won by Great Britain in C2, although there had been a few C2 Team medals. (I will describe the Team event in a subsequent blog post but enough to say it does not apply to the Olympic Games).

In ladies kayak, Lizzie Neave, 24, won qualification to these Olympics in emphatic style winning all three selection races in April. It was mighty tense down to the very last paddler down. Lizzie came up through the sport as part of the Stafford & Stone canoe club, who have won 19 Interclub Championship since 1985! At the age of 14 Lizzie made the British junior team. In 2005, still a J18 paddler, Lizzie became British National Champion for the first time, giving us a glimpse of what to expect from her in the future as her strength and race experience developed further. This materialized at the senior World Championships in La Seu d’Urgell where in 2009 she became K1W bronze medallist and World K1W Team Champion. She is in good form following her bronze medal at the 2011 European Champions and last month’s bronze medal at the Pau World Cup race 2.

Lizzie is coach by Paul Ratcliffe who won a silver medal in K1M in Sydney. There are many similarities between the Lee Valley course and the Penrith Whitewater centre as well as La Seu d’Urgell, all of which are artificial slalom course built for recent Olympic Games. In a Canoe Focus issue Lizzie described how important it was to her to move down from Nottingham to London to be close to the Lee Valley course.

Lizzie Neave racing at World Cup 1 on Cardiff whitewater course
Photo courtesy of Michael Barnett

Back to C2, our second crew is Etienne Stott, 33, & Tim Baillie, 33. Stott & Baillie were British National Champions in 2008, 2009 and 2010.  In both 2009 and 2011 they were part of the 3 boat C2 team which won bronze medals at the World Championships in La Seu d’Urgell and and Bratislava respectively. They have had a good 2012 season currently lying 3rd overall after the first three World Cup races in Cardiff, Pau and La Seu d’Urgell. They are coached by Nick Smith, who represented Team GB in C2 at the Sydney Olympics.

Stott & Baillie at 2012 Word Cup Race 1 in Cardiff, UK
Photo courtesy of Michael Barnett

More can be found at GB Canoeing website. Over the next week I will share one post a day to explain the four classes, K1M, K1W, C1 and C2 profiling the boats, paddles and techniques. Stay tuned. Tomorrow’s post will pay tribute to a true trail blazer in canoe slalom remembering Martyn Hedges who we lost 20 years ago just before the Barcelona Olympics and looking at how the sport has evolved since it came back into the Olympic programme in 1992.