Bratislava poster boy, Michel Martikan. Photo: Jamie McEwan

By Jamie McEwan

Here I am—Bratislava, Slovakia! Site of the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships!

Ouch, I’ve done it already: I can’t even write two sentences (one a fragment) about the Worlds without stumbling over Slalom’s Eurocentrism. Here they don’t say “Canoe and Kayak Slalom” because for Europeans, “canoe” is the generic word for canoes and kayaks. As for North Americans who know by birthright exactly what a canoe is, and therefore say “Canoe and Kayak,” well, we can safely be ignored, being so very far from the current center of gravity of “canoe sport.”

Whereas Bratislava, in contrast, is very close.

In the last Olympics the Slovakian slalomists won three of the four Olympic gold medals contested. This domination enabled Slovakia to win, per capita, more Olympic medals in Beijing than any other country in the world. In last year’s Slalom World Championships (and the Worlds are a more competitive and fairer event than the Olympics—more on this another day), the Slovakians won a “mere” two of the five individual gold medals, with two silvers thrown in for good measure. No matter how you slice it, the Slovakians are extremely successful. And, no surprise, they take the sport very seriously.

U.S. C-2 paddlers Isaac Levinson and Benn Fraker test the waters in Bratislava. Photo: Jamie McEwan

It would be deceptive to say that canoe slalom is a major sport, even here in Slovakia. Yes, there are billboards advertising the Worlds along the roads here, and flags downtown. But the course itself is a 20-minute drive from downtown Bratislava in a treeless, windswept park on an island in the Danube. It ha some of the backlot feel of, say, the Wausau, Wisconsin course that will host next year’s Junior Worlds. The anticipated crowds will dress up the place, I’m sure, but it is a bit of a puzzle where room will be found for them.

At the same time, admittedly, the four Slovakian poster stars are widely recognized in Bratislava, a city of over 400,000 people. Michel Martikan, four-time World C-1 Champion with two Olympic golds and two silvers, has the perhaps more interesting distinction that in fourteen consecutive starts in the Worlds and Olympics he has medalled every single time. Then there’s the Hochschorner brothers in C-2, twins, but of very different sizes, who have Martikan beat in the Olympic gold medal department, having won the past three Olympics in a row. And Jana Dukatova, a mere slouch in comparison with these medal-winning monsters, has her own unique credential—she has been World Champion in both K-1 and C-1.

Enough for today—now I’m off to cross another border, into Hungary. Why Hungary? Because the U.S. team is staying there, a mere ten minutes from the course, and I’d like to catch up with a certain Devin McEwan. In three days, son Devin will race for the U.S. in the C-2 event, with partner Casey Eichfeld.

Stay tuned to C&K for further updates from Bratislava, or thereabouts.