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Olympic Poseur: Kayak

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It’s not canoeing

Canoe Slalom - Olympics: Day 5
Everyone roots for the home team
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One man’s quest to immerse himself in the Olympic spirit. Today’s sport: Kayak

This was supposed to be about canoeing. When I first checked the schedule of the Olympics and tried to map out my day to day, I saw “Canoe” on the schedule and immediately conjured up images of some Last of the Mohicans stuff. I wanted some French guy going over a waterfall, preferably while people shot arrows at him.

Alas, the sport is Canoe/Kayak, and my luck ran out on the selection. So we get to do boring, old kayak. Which, to be fair, is still really cool and all, but I wanted to see some unwieldy canoes barreling down the river, only halfway in control.

Therein lay my second disappointment: man-made rivers. Once I flipped on the coverage, it flooded back to me that the Olympics doesn’t use the actual river, even when the local rivers aren’t swimming with a few million people’s sewage. Man-made river is certainly the way to go here, and it also gives the organizers a chance to control the course.

Kayak does have what I like to refer to as the Bobsled Problem. Bobsled is really cool, as these machines hurtle down a mountain at ungodly speeds. Watching one bobsled run is mesmerizing. Watching two is like watching a replay. Watching five… well, I’m checking to see the score on the hockey game. Every run starts to look alike to the untrained eye.

The good news for kayak is that the athlete is exposed from the waist up, so we at least get to see his frantic paddling or the head whipping under the gate. Additionally, since we’re dealing with water, the run is never precisely the same. There’s a level of unpredictability to the event that there isn’t in those Winter Olympic sliding sports.

Even better, the early prelims narrowed down the field to just ten kayakers for the finals. If you were inclined to get bored with guys paddling down the same course, at least it would be over relatively quickly. And while there were no Americans in the finals, there was a Brazilian, so we could enjoy some rooting for the home team.

not just a head-long sprint down the river, at least not in the slalom. The kayaker has to make it through gates, which are suspended above the course. The boat doesn’t have to go through the gate, but the athlete’s head does, hence the contortions. There’s also backwards gates, so the kayaker has to paddle against the current to go through the gate from the opposite side, before continuing down the course. It’s fascinating, and obvious display of strength and skill.

Our Brazilian rooting interest, Pedro da Silva, was the final qualifier and therefore went off first. This was good for a few reasons, as the crowd got to go nuts when he completed the course, and then root against every single kayaker who came after him, as long as he was in medal contention. We got the fun of rooting for somebody and against the field.

Da Silva’s time held up through the next three competitors, and would not fall until the fifth start of the session, Hannes Aigner of Germany. I lustily booed the German along with the crowd (actually, they were pretty appreciative, as the athletes all seemed to cheer for one another… this isn’t a sport that has a lot of mind games).

The final five largely blew da Silva out of the water, and Great Britain paddled away with the gold medal. Where there is a sport with an oar, chances are pretty good that England is good at it. Joseph Clark set the winning time on the third to last run, meaning we got the excitement of two guys coming down trying to knock him down the podium, yet failing.

In the end, everyone hugged, the crowd cheered, and I had one heck of a good time. Even if there were no canoes. Or waterfalls.

Team Sports

Rugby Sevens. The US got their asses kicked. We gave Fiji, the heavy favorite, a run for their money, but the opening loss came back to haunt the US and they did not even qualify for the quarterfinals. This sport is insanely great, and far more interesting than regular rugby which can honestly drag a little bit, and today is your last chance to catch it in the Olympics. The British and South Africans showdown in the semis, so it’s like a little slice of the Olympics never left the Edwardian era.

Water Polo. Let’s face it, as cool as water polo must be to play, the sport is pretty hard to watch. Yes, it’s just organized drowning, but that’s a feature not a bug. The real problem is that there are a ton of whistles, giving the game a herky-jerky flow that never seems to fall into rhythm. I also have no idea what is or isn’t a foul, and haven’t been able to figure it out, honestly. There’s also the fact that it just looks like a bunch of people splashing on the TV. This sport was not made for television, so call it the hockey of the Olympics.

However, it’s nice to see Brazil men’s team going on an underdog run. They upset Serbia yesterday to take sole possession of first place in their group with an undefeated record. Brazil still has Hungary and Greece on the schedule, so the fairy tale may not have a happy ending, but it’s great to see the host nation doing well. The Brazilian women, on the other hand, have lost two games by a combined score of 28-11. That’s not good.

Swimming/Track

Four more gold medals got handed out last night, and the USA didn’t win any of them until the final race. The women’s 4x200 team was actually down going into the final leg, but Katie Ledecky did Katie Ledecky things, and the US won by a second and a half. This just in, she’s pretty good.

Dmitriy Balandin won Kazakhstan’s first swimming gold medal, out-touching USA’s Josh Prenot in the 200m breaststroke by .07 seconds. The US has won more than their fair share of medals, so it’s tough to be disappointed to see a huge underdog walk away with a meaningful gold. The US likely returns to its winning ways tonight.

Tomorrow: Judo.