Dom Joly: Orange ghosts, 'volunteer' frogmen and a sartorial tussle out on the water

I thought it would be white water, but the kayaking down at Shunyi lake proved intriguing enough anyway
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The Independent Online

It's a long, uneventful bus ride to the Shunyi rowing and canoeing park – most of the journalists and photographers are fast asleep. The long hours are starting to take their toll. I'm not even supposed to be here. I was going to watch the BMX this morning but I was on BBC Five Live until 2am and slept through my alarm. This actually turned out to be quite fortunate as the event was postponed for a day because of torrential rain. So I decided to go see some canoeing... or kayaking, I wasn't sure which, but was pretty sure that the rain wouldn't be an issue.

The drive out of Beijing takes about three-quarters of an hour. This has become quite a hassle for athletes in these events who had to commute out to compete and practise. Quite a few of them checked out of the Olympic Village and moved into hotels around the park.

I spotted one of them on my way out here – the Beijing Country Paradise Hotel... it looked anything but. There was some lovely scenery on view – rivers bordered by endless weeping willows that framed the lush green fields. In almost every one of these fields stood a forlorn figure in bright orange waterproofs – orange ghosts in front of misty green backdrops. These are the local neighbourhood "volunteers" who, back in the capital, sit on every street corner keeping an eye on the comings and goings. At least they have a busy street to watch – out here their snooping country cousins must have the patience of saints and the excitement level of scarecrows.

We get to the park – a huge long expanse of water bordered by long, low spectator stands. The whole area stinks of beer as there is a huge brewery just down the road – I don't know if this is a help or a hindrance to the Olympians but I rather like it. In my ignorance I thought I was coming to see some white-water type canoeing – men battling through rapids, etc.

I was rather looking forward to this as I actually have some experience in this area. Just this summer I have been trained in the art of canoeing by my Canadian father-in-law. I have also, for reasons far too complicated to go into here, been propelled down the Barcelona Olympics white-water course on a small boogie board, so I was looking forward to using my limited expertise actually to enlighten you for once, dear patient reader.

Sadly, it was not to be – what was on offer was flat-water kayak racing: essentially sprinting down a long straight bit of water in a kayak. It is, however, rather more exciting than I would have envisaged and I quickly get into it. I'm fascinated to know just how they all manage to get their canoes or kayaks to sit in an exact line at the start: I wonder whether they have a brigade of Chinese "volunteer" frogmen bubbling underwater holding the craft until the starting horn sounds. Nothing would surprise me any more, having seen the lengths that the Chinese will go to make these Games work like clockwork. I inspect more closely with my binoculars and discover that they have miniature docks that they stick the points of their craft into. When the klaxon sounds these disappear beneath the water – maybe my Chinese frogman theory still holds water, but they just have a different function?

There are two very particular fashion trends on show in this sport – the bandanna and the head sweatband. Most competitors seem to wear one or the other, which is pretty unusual in any other event I've watched. The bandanna wearers give off a certain raffish, almost piratical air, whereas the head sweatband wearers just look a little... naff. I've been so tempted to get a head sweatband over here to combat the killer humidity but modesty has forbidden me to so do. Maybe the success of our triple jumper Phillips Idowu – a devoted sporter of said garment – will start a fad? Somehow I doubt it.

After a pleasant couple of hours in the dry, watching people exert themselves in the wet, I head back to town and the Olympic Stadium for another night of top athletics. As I leave I just check to see if there's a press conference going on: I'm itching to use the hoary old Canadian joke as a question – "canoe canoe?" I think the answer would almost definitely be yes... unless they were in a kayak...