First Look: Rio Olympic Slalom Course

An American slalom racer's first impressions of the 2016 Rio Olympic Whitewater Stadium

By Aaron Mann, U.S. Slalom Team Kayaker

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov. 22, 2015. After three straight summer Olympics featuring spectacular canoe slalom courses, the first video of the Rio Olympic Whitewater Stadium was disappointing. It made the course look like an Olympic-sized dud.

Fortunately, those concerns quickly disappeared when athletes arrived at the venue and took to the water for this week’s test event. (The video above is from my first trip down the Rio course.)

Though the Rio course doesn’t boast the same gradient or steep drops as recent Olympic venues, the whitewater is nonstop from start to finish. Utilizing the same adjustable Rapidbloc system as the Lee Valley White Water Centre in London, the designers have configured the obstacles to create consistent, hole-laden whitewater. The main flow is quite powerful and punishing as it bounces off the blocks creating eddies. As a result, if you mistime one stroke, it becomes extremely difficult to get your boat back on top of the water without exerting enormous amounts of energy.

[CHECK OUT MORE STORIES AND PROFILES FROM C&K’S ROAD TO RIO SERIES]

Five-Ring Fever. Rebecca Giddens was the last American to win a medal in whitewater slalom--a silver in 2004.
Five-Ring Fever. Rebecca Giddens on the Olympic podium, 2004.

The only noticeable features lacking on the channel are consistent or usable green waves. There are some breaking waves here and there, but they are not good enough to use for dynamic slalom moves. My feeling is that the lack of waves is due to the overuse of Rapidblocs both underwater and to create eddies, which has slowed the current too much for waves to form. I am by no means an engineer, but from my experiences on artificial whitewater I’ve found this to be true of numerous courses with adjustable obstacles.

Luckily, there is still plenty of time before the start of the Olympics for officials to fine-tune the channel. This is one of the reasons why the test event is so important. It allows competitors to familiarize themselves with the water, and also provides the venue managers and International Canoe Federation the opportunity to see athletes on the water and get their feedback.

I don’t think the Rio course favors any particular type of slalom racer. Come next summer, it should provide excitement for competitors and spectators alike.

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