SPORTS

Longtime rivals Germany, Hungary set to dominate spiced-up Olympic canoe sprint regatta

08/05/2012 10:21 EDT | Updated 10/05/2012 05:12 EDT
WINDSOR, England - With canoe sprint undergoing a radical facelift since the Beijing Games in 2008, competition over the next six days at Dorney Lake will be more explosive than at any previous Olympics.

There's an exciting new sprint event — the 200 metres — an extra women's discipline and changes to course design, all intending to spice up a sport widely seen as rowing's baby brother.

Some things never change, however.

Germany and Hungary have dominated canoe sprint since the turn of the century at Olympic, world and European level and there is nothing to suggest they won't be battling to top the medals table by the end of this regatta.

The Germans, who have the world's biggest canoe federation with 120,000 members, look especially strong heading to the picturesque venue in Windsor, west of London, and have medal contenders in all 12 disciplines.

"The results in the World Cup events have been very good, and also in the recent European Championship," Jens Kahl, Germany's high performance director, told The Associated Press on Sunday. "We won an average of around seven medals in each competition so it's a good preview for the Olympic Games.

"We are confident we can show the same here. We think we can win medals in all the disciplines."

Since 1992, canoeing has been the most successful Olympic sport in Germany, in terms of medals won compared to the number of athletes involved.

Underpinning that success has been canoe great Birgit Fischer, who won eight golds and four silvers at summer games to be among the most successful Olympians ever.

She attempted to qualify for the London Games, at age 50, but gave up when told my doctors that she couldn't compete because of heart muscle inflammation.

The baton has been passed down to a number of other experienced canoeists and kayakers, such as four-time gold-medallist Katrin Wagner-Augustin and double world champion Max Hoff.

Wagner-Augustin, who will compete in the heats of the kayak four 500 starting on Monday, is looking for a gold in a fourth straight games.

"She is the most experienced person in the women's team and I think taking a break for her pregnancy was a good time for her develop her individual qualities," Kahl said. "It was a step forwards, rather than backwards, for her in kayaking. She is a leader and will play an important role here."

Hungary, whose canoeists are afforded celebrity status in their country, have a squad to challenge the Germans, especially among the women's teams.

The Hungarians have more Olympic medals than any other nation and have won at least one gold in each Olympics since 1980.

Canoe sprint, though, has become a more global sport over the last decade and 48 nations will compete in this regatta.

The introduction to the Olympics of the 200 metres, which replaces the 500 for men and is the equivalent of the blue-ribbon 100 metres in track, has really given the sport fresh impetus.

Races will last around 34 seconds and the paddle rate is around three strokes per second.

"It brings the 'fastest paddler in the world' element to the sport, similar to track and field," said Joe Jacobi, chief executive of USA Canoe/Kayak. "Also, the spectators can see the race develop from start to finish, very quickly. They can really feel the energy and the power of the athletes.

"To put everything you've got into just 30 seconds, do or die, you've got to love that feeling. It takes a big leap of faith to do it."

Importantly, it has meant male athletes are no longer able to double up in events, bringing a new breed of competitors into the sport.

The number of men's events has reduced from nine to eight, with women's classes increasing from three to four. The International Canoe Federation has also made it an eight-lane course instead of nine.

Dorney Lake had a stadium-like atmosphere for the recently completed eight-day rowing regatta, helped undoubtedly by the unprecedented success of the British rowers who won a record nine medals, including four golds.

The British will not do as well in the canoe sprint, although golds could come in the kayak single 200 through Ed McKeever — known is Britain as "Usain Bolt on Water" — and Liam Heath and Jon Schofield in the kayak double 200.

"There is generally less than half a second between everyone (in the 200), so it'll be exciting to watch," McKeever said.

The other heats on the opening day of action will be in the men's kayak single 1,000, men's kayak double 1,000 and men's canoe single 1,000.

MORE:cpSports