Bratislava Chronicles #2

Compared to the upcoming Olympics, what in the world does it mean for the World Championships?

Training time can get crowded, in Bratislava. Photo: Jamie McEwan

(Ed’s note: This post is the second in a series chronicling the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships, in Bratislava, Slovakia. Read dispatch No. 1 HERE.)

By Jamie McEwan

I’m getting the feeling that the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships has an inferiority complex.

Benn Fraker at the top of the Bratislava slalom course. Photo: Jamie McEwan

Today the home page for the World Championships features a photo of Michel Martikan with the caption, “Road to London Adds Extra Excitement to Canoe Slalom World Championships.” Open the program of events, and the first bold type you see on the page reads: “Olympic Day—Qualification to London 2012.”

To the organizers, it seems, the most significant feature of the World Championships is that it serves as a qualifier for next summer’s Olympics. I think that treating the World Championships as a mere stepping stone to the Olympics is rather a shame, as to me, the Worlds is the superior event. But perhaps the organizers—and I—have no choice but to focus on the Olympics, for who can stem a media tide?

I have read through the London 2012 qualification system several times, and although there are lots of interesting complexities, what’s looming right now is that 56 of the 82 slots allocated to Canoe Slalom in the London Olympics will be chosen this week. Each country can earn a maximum of one slot per class. Although the athletes do the qualifying, it’s not athletes who qualify; the slots are awarded to the countries, to be filled as they choose.

Scott Parsons going over the drop. Photo: Jamie McEwan

The limitation of entries to one athlete per country per class clearly makes the Olympics both less fair and less competitive: If the three best competitors in the world happen to come from the same country, two of them might well consider taking the year off—no Olympics for them, and there are no World Championships in Olympic years. Bye-bye, Benus, you may have been fourth in the 2010 Worlds, but Martikan owns your spot. Likewise, World Bronze medalist last year, and also 2008 Olympic Bronze Medallist, Violetta Oblinger-Peters (daughter of two-time World Champion Wolfgang Peters, for those of you who remember the late ’60s), has the misfortune to race for the same country as last year’s World Champion. The one time every four years canoe slalom makes it into the spotlight, half the top ten are left sitting on their hands at home. How fair is that?

Insiders consider the World Championships the true test of the athletes, and the Olympics a public showcase, a sort of command performance.

This year’s World Championships carry an added importance for U.S. racers, as it is one of three races that will be used to select the athlete who will fill whichever slots we gain in next year’s Olympics. (The other two are the U.S. Team Trials and the first race of next year’s World Cup.) There seems some justice in this method—if you qualify this country’s Olympic slot, you get a leg up in earning that slot for yourself—though some find it strange that the winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials may be left at home, as occurred in the K-1 Men’s class in 2008.

Training time on the water, and on land. Photo: Jamie McEwan

I asked some of the U.S. athletes if the addition of Olympic qualification makes this year’s Worlds different from other years. “Yes, and it’s good,” said Brett Heyl, “because it makes you a little more activated.” “Probably,” said Scott Parsons, “but I try not to think about it.”

Heyl and Parsons have both made U.S. Olympic teams. Just goes to show that there’s more than one way to win a race.

Jamie McEwan raced on numerous U.S. Slalom teams between 1971 and 2001, collecting one Olympic medal, one World Championship medal, and one World Cup Championship along the way. Now the veteran competitor and expedition paddler is exploring the unfamiliar role of spectator, sharing his insights as the world’s best slalom paddlers compete for the sport’s most significant prize. Among them is Jamie’s son, Devin, racing in the USA C-2 with Casey Eichfeld.

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