By Jamie McEwan
With a style both fluid and aggressive, Tony Estanguet of France won his third Olympic Gold in the C-1 class on Tuesday, pulling ahead of his longtime rival Michal Martikan, and bringing the most celebrated duel in slalom history to a close. It has been Estanguet, or Martikan, on top of the Olympic podium since 1996. Slovakia’s Martikan had to settle for an Olympic Bronze (his lowest Olympic placing ever), while 22-year-old Sideris Tasiadis of Germany won the silver, splitting the two veterans.
In the C-2 event the next day, the redoubtable Hochschorner brothers of Slovakia also had to settle for Bronze when they took a race-deciding penalty, while in the biggest surprise of the competition the British team of Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott held on for the Gold. Baillie/Stott did not even win the British Olympic trials this year; they were only included in the competition under a new rule that allowed countries a second C-2 entry if one entry was made up of competitors already selected in their respective singles events. That’s exactly what the number one British team, Florence and Hounslow, had accomplished in their trials that spring, so number two team Baillie/Stott also got the nod. What was more, Baillie and Stott were the last boat to qualify for the finals, only a second and a half from being eliminated. But they sped up four seconds in the final, and all challengers failed to meet the new mark. Hounslow and Florence placed a close second, making it a British one-two. And oh yes, the crowd went wild.
The results in the women’s kayak event, though less topsy-turvy than C-2, also held some surprises. The reigning World Champion Corinna Kuhnle of Austria inexplicably rushed an easy gate at the top of the course, a mistake that dropped her to eighth place. It was the hard-driving Emilie Fer of France who won the Gold; second place went to the equally hard-driving 18-year-old Australian, Jessica Fox. The more technical Maialen Chourraut of Spain was third. This was the tightest of the four Olympic slalom races, with all three women finishing within one second. It is worthy of note that the fourth-place finisher was the two-time Olympic champion Stepanka Hilgertova of the Czech Republic; at age 44, she was racing in her sixth Olympics. She has given little away.
In the Men’s Kayak class, another reigning World Champion, Peter Kauzer of Slovenia, also fumbled an easy section at the top of the course, leaving his long-standing rival Daniele Molmenti of Italy to take the gold in an exciting, dynamic run. Paddling with a similarly all-out style, Hradilek of the Czech Republic placed second. (Hradilek had already proved a crowd-pleaser when he used a cross-bow in the heats.) Hannes Aigner of Germany, with more classic form, was a strong third. Although the men’s kayaks did not make the course look as easy as they usually do–there were some top boats failing to make a crucial surf mid-way–the top competitors blasted their way down full throttle.
While the semifinal and finals racing was going on over the last three days of competition, the US team was watching from bankside, having failed to qualify out of the heats on Sunday and Monday. America’s best hope for a medal, kayaker Scott Parsons, after a solid but not-quite-good-enough first run in the heats, was given a “head-duck” fifty-second penalty on his otherwise-improved second run, dropping him out of the competition. On her second heats run Caroline Queen entered gate twenty with time to spare, but turned too soon and had to loop for the next gate. Casey Eichfeld had a solid but slightly slow result that left him in fourteenth; the cut-off was twelfth. And the C-2 team of Jeff Larimer and Eric Hurd were were as fast as the qualifiers, but picked up a few too many small touches on their way down the course. All four entries could have gone on–but none did.
In the wake of the U.S. team’s disappointing results, the United States’ slalom program will come under a lot of criticism. The second-guessing has already begun. But the critics may be misconstruing the problem; the fact is that there is so little slalom activity in the US, it may be misleading to think of there being a program at all. There are simply a handful of athletes, competing as best they can.
Watch the full replay of Men’s C-1 semifinals and Gold Medal Finals
Watch the full replay of Men’s K-1 semis and Gold Medal Finals
Watch the full replay of Men’s C-2 and Women’s K-1 semis and Gold Medal Finals
(Links open to NBCOlympics.com and require a cable subscription to view)