Olympics-Blood, sweat and cheers - Paris to welcome kayak cross


FILE PHOTO: Britain Canoeing - British Canoe Slalom Olympic & Senior team media day - Lee Valley White Water Centre - 5/5/16 Great Britain's Joe Clarke during training. Action Images via Reuters / Paul Childs/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - World champion Joe Clarke knows from experience that blood may be spilled as he goes for gold in the new Olympic discipline of kayak cross at the Paris white water centre in August.

Asked to explain how physical the event can get after a training session at the British team base in Waltham Abbey, Clarke pulls out his phone and plays a video.

It shows him during a practice run in Australia earlier this year taking a blow to the face from the sharp end of another kayak, blood streaming down his wet face.

"It was a big knock, but that's what can happen," Clarke, three-times world champion in kayak cross, previously known as extreme slalom, told Reuters. "I got a boat to the head. They glued it back together and I was out for five days."

Thankfully Clarke has now fully recovered and, after being surprisingly left off the team for the Tokyo Games despite being the reigning Olympic K1 champion, he is energised by the chance to showcase an event he thinks will be compulsive viewing.

"It's the head to head element that gets people on the edge of their seats," Clarke says. "The feedback is instant, first across the line. You see people have a terrible start but go from fourth to first in an instant. Or first to fourth."

Traditional canoe slalom events such as K1 are against the clock, with paddlers negotiating a course of gates in the churning water as quickly as possible without accruing time penalties -- a format Clarke admits can be boring.

Kayak cross starts with timed solo runs but then gets really wild. From then on, paddlers go head-to-head in knockout heats involving four boats -- launching from a steep ramp, picking their way down the course and even having to perform an Eskimo roll before crossing the line.

It is fast and furious with contact almost inevitable and Clarke says a cool head is required.

"If someone gives you a big knock off the start you can't let the red mist come down and go after them," he said.

"Your decisions have to be really in the moment. Make the wrong call and you'll pay for it. I go into races with a Plan A, B, C, D and E. Throw away the rule book.

"Those decisions can win you medals."

EXTREME SPORT

Kayak cross is the latest extreme sport added to the programme by the International Olympic Committee along with others like BMX racing and freestyle and skate boarding.

"I mean a canoe slalom final usually takes maybe half an hour or 40 minutes from start to finish, and unless you are really invested in that it's pretty boring," he said.

"We've got the attention span of goldfish nowadays so the fact that kayak cross races are over in 45 seconds and it's first over the line means people will hopefully be sitting on the edge of their sofas."

While the 31-year-old Clarke says his first love remains the technical and traditional K1, the addition of kayak cross has given him a new lease of life and he is even planning to extend his career to compete in Los Angeles in 2028.

"It's exciting to have it as a medal event," he said. "Everyone has jumped at it and its gone through a whirlwind since I became world champion for the first time in 2021."

While it can be rough, Clarke believes the secret to his success is fast starts and staying out of trouble.

"There's only so much you can control but you make your own luck," he said. "My biggest strength is getting out in front, getting off the ramp super quick.

"The more you get into that hustle and bustle that's when it can become a lottery."

Clarke will arrive in Paris as world champion in both of his events and knows he will be seen as the man to beat.

"I know they will be coming for me but I've been there and done it before. The pressure is mainly from myself."

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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