As you approach the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre in eastern Tokyo, the first thing you see is carefully stacked racing canoes, their sleek, pointed hulls glistening in the sun.
Behind the canoes, a torrent of water rushes down a purpose-built slope, the scene of this afternoon’s men’s canoe slalom final.
The canoe slalom course is 200 meters long, with 25 gates that the canoeists must duck, spin and weave between using just a single paddle to power themselves as they are carried down the course by a torrent of water. Top to bottom, there’s a height difference of 4.5 meters, designed to replicate a fast-flowing mountain stream.
In the competition, Japan’s Takuya Haneda briefly led the semifinals, and eventually qualified for the final in 10th place with a time of 107.82 seconds. Frenchman Martin Thomas led the pack into the final with a time of 100.65.
Haneda went first in the finals and received a 4-second penalty after touching two gates for a finishing time of 109.30, slower than his semifinal run. A close competition followed, which was ultimately won following a brilliantly clean run by 2017 world champion Benjamin Savsek (Slovenia) in a time of 98.25 seconds, the only competitor to finish in under the 100-second mark. Lukas Rohan (Czech Republic) took silver and Sideris Tasiadis (Germany) took bronze.
“It’s really amazing. It’s a nice step up from world champion to Olympic champion,” Savsek said. “This is the first medal for canoeing for Slovenia, and I’m really proud to achieve this medal, especially gold.”
The Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre, the first artificial slalom course in Japan, is open to the elements, and can begin to cook in the sweltering heat of a Tokyo summer. The concrete surrounding the water gets hot, but so too does the water, which is recycled round and round the 200-meter course with little chance to cool down.
“I think the heat today wasn’t as big a problem, but the water is still hot,” said Savsek. “Qualifications were harder because of the heat.”
The weekend’s qualifications, which took place under unrelentingly sunny skies, were brutal for the athletes. The warmth of the water posed challenges, sapping athletes’ strength and forcing them to rely on cooling packs and iced towels to cool off after each race. Jessica Fox, who won the women’s kayak heats on Sunday, compared it to paddling through a “hot bath,” saying it was the warmest water she had ever competed in.
With no fans able to attend this Olympic Games, the athletes competed with little support in the stands; the sound of the course’s rushing water and the cicadas in the surrounding Kasai Rinkai Park offered more consistent support than those in attendance.
“It’s not so good to have no spectators here,” said Sideris Tasiadis. “With the cheering you get more and more motivation to go down (the course), but of course it is corona and we are very happy to have the Olympic Games.”
The Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre is expected to open to the public after the Games, with the hope that it will help develop the sport in Japan. Japan’s current canoe slalom scene is largely focused on mountain rivers, making the sport inaccessible to all but the keenest enthusiasts.
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