Alex Chick

Second-rate spectacle at canoe slalom?

Alex Chick

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The monster from the deep - Poland's Mateusz Polaczyk

It was hard not to feel like you were at the wrong water sport.

Just after arriving at Lee Valley for the K1 kayaking (the one with the double-ended paddles) in the canoe slalom, I sat in the media centre and watched rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning strike gold for Britain.

Despite pretending not to be that bothered (press-box protocol), it was a real thrill to see them demolish their rivals in thoroughly un-British fashion.

This demolition job exhibited the stereotypically Germanic quality of ruthless efficiency. Their game plan: start fast, push hard in the middle kilometre and give it everything at the end.

And here I was, 35 miles away in Hertfordshire, about to watch an event in which the only Brit, Richard Hounslow, could not be counted among the favourites.

The course initially disappointed, mainly due to my own stupidity.

Even though you know it is a man-made facility, you hope for a certain wild openness from white-water events that simply isn't going to happen half a mile outside Waltham Cross.

The course is smaller and less steep than you expect - just a 5.5m drop along 300m of water.

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Danny Alexander in attendance

As the action neared, and I battled this vague feeling of second-rateness, who should sit down just in front of me but a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister?

Yes, Danny Alexander was here, presumably after all his Tory colleagues took the plum seats at the rowing and cycling.

The portents were not good, but I had forgotten the wonderful thing about the Olympics - just because something amazing is going on, it doesn't lessen the excitement and drama elsewhere.

With 302 gold medals awarded in 26 sports over little more than a fortnight, the chances of two or more brilliant things happening at a time are very high.

So it was a small privilege to see first hand an event that the triumphs of Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins will erase from the British consciousness.

The canoe slalom format is simple - competitors go down one by one, negotiating a series of gates, and try to post the fastest time without picking up penalties (two seconds for hitting a gate, 50 for missing one).

Against-the-clock drama is always compelling, and after a few runs you quickly get the hang of what constitutes a good line and where the problem areas lie (gates 18 and 19). Even a novice can feel knowledgeable.

Although the live experience shatters any illusion of open water - in fairness, so too does watching on TV if you pay even the remotest attention - the compact venue makes a fine viewing arena, and the lack of gradient does stop the water flowing quickly and choppily.

You get a real sense of the forces against which these paddlers are working as they attempt to traverse the current, and once again an Olympic crowd provided outstanding support

One aspect of canoe slalom I knew nothing about was the paddlers' custom of hanging around the finish after they have competed.

As the finalists went (Hounslow perished in the semis), they gathered in a matey commune at the bottom, regardless of whether they encountered triumph or disaster.

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Daniele Molmenti and Vavrinec Hradilek embrace

After completing his run - on his 28th birthday - Italian gold medallist Daniele Molmenti enjoyed an enthusiastic hug with the man he had pushed off the top of the podium, Vavrinec Hradilek.

The Czech looked utterly delighted with his silver, blissfully unaware of the corrosive maxim that second place is the first loser.

The Olympics hands out three medals, and he had gone one of them. He couldn't have been happier.

There's no pretending this event will command its own chapter in the Olympic history book. There was no British success, no controversy and no momentous entry into Games legend.

All we saw was the world's best kayakers competing on the biggest possible stage, and doing so with enormous skill and sportsmanship.

How very second-rate.


ACCESSIBILITY/FACILITIES: 5/10 - Cheshunt railway station hardly counts as the centre of the universe, and once there you have another 20-minute walk to the venue - where huge queues to get in greet you. Facilities once inside are fine.

VIEW: 9/10 - You can see the majority of the course from any vantage point, and a semi-circle of stands creates an excellent amphitheatre effect.

FANS: 8/10 - One of the great joys of this Olympics is that everyone seems genuinely pleased to be there. A refreshing change from football crowds, which seem evenly split between the silent and the angry.

SPECTACLE: 8/10 - In person, you get a real appreciation for the how difficult the sport is - any normal person would get instantly swept away. The competition format makes for riveting drama.

X-FACTOR: 6/10 - It is a bit out of the way - a white water arena by the Thames would have been phenomenal (though wildly expensive). But for spectacular, crowd-pleasing action, you can't go far wrong.


Other venues rated
North Greenwich Arena (gymnastics): 39/50
Aquatics Centre: 38/50
Basketball Arena: 36/50
Box Hill (road race cycling): 35/50
Riverbank Arena: 32/50
ExCel (weightlifting): 31/50

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Alex Chick will be writing from London 2012 throughout the Olympic Games.

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