To argue that any Olympic event is the most demanding, exhausting, or requires the most mastery is difficult. But there is a case to be made for canoe slalom, the mad single-paddled white-water descent, whose semi-final and final is this afternoon.
David Florence, the 29-year-old Scot who won the silver medal in Beijing, is one of 12 men who will be rushing down the 250 metre course, manoeuvring through the gates, trying to finish in the top eight to reach the final and win the medal from there.
While Florence already has an Olympic medal, he cannot be said to have seen it all before. Every canoe slalom course is different, and the mental challenge of learning every turn, gate and eddy during competition is inseparable from the physical challenge of moving the canoe around the course and through the 18 gates – six of them requiring the canoe to go upstream rather than down – as quickly as possible. Any gate hit means a two-second penalty, any gate missed means a prohibitive 50 seconds.
It is harder and less predictable than kayaking. While that provides a long two-bladed paddle, with the racer sitting down, canoeing gives only a short single blade, and must be done kneeling. This means that their weight is more central, making it easier to turn. And with a lighter bow than a kayak there is less speed in a straight line but more flexibility in different directions, which is the essence of the challenge.
“Getting a slalom C1 [single boat] to go where you want to go is pretty difficult when you first start,” Florence said. “There’s a huge amount of subtleties, of tiny little boat leans and boat edging and also the exact direction you’re pulling your paddle in. It takes a very long time to actually master it but when you do it’s amazing how well you can get the boat to go in a set direction with a lot of power even though you’re only paddling on one side.”
The course at the Lee Valley White Water Centre will certainly be difficult. Built specifically for this purpose, the 250 metre route descends 5.5metres from start to finish. Water is pumped down the course at a speed of 13,000 litres per second. The variable channels are made by moving the rapid blocks, big stone bricks which help direct the gradient and flow of the water. Florence describes it as a “fun place to race”, and he hopes it will provide him with as good memories as the course in Beijing.
Four years ago Florence came second in Beijing, losing only to the remarkably successful Slovak Michal Martikan, who won gold at the age of 17 in Atlanta – the first for independent Slovakia – before silver at Sydney and Athens. He is such a hero at home that he was given a presidential pardon in 2000 to avoid a prison sentence for manslaughter after killing a man while speeding. But Florence insists he is much stronger now.
“It’s a really different scenario,” Florence said. “For me that was four years ago. I’ve some many European competitions, I’ve done so much training and made so many improvements.” He is now ranked No 1 by the International Canoe Federation. As well as the individual campaign he has been competing too with Richard Hounslow in the pairs, the final for which are on Thursday, likely to be dominated by Pavol and Peter Hochschorner, the Slovakian twins who won gold in Sydney, Athens and Beijing.
But Florence’s focus today will be on the C1, and the hope that he might just upgrade his silver to gold. “I have never heard noise like that before,” he beamed after his successful heats. “The support was immense.”