Monday, August 18, 2008

Designing an Olympic Course

Olympic Whitewater Slalom has now made its 6th appearance in the Summer Olympics. After making its debut in Munich in 1972, Slalom reappeared in Barcelona in 1992 and has been in every Olympic Games since. There have been quite a few rule changes in the sport over the years, but one thing has always remained - the action and excitement of whitewater paddling. This year in Beijing was no different.

This year was involved in "the show" for the 5th time, this time as a judge. My main duty was to design the gate configuration for the course, but I was also the "video judge" in charge of making sure there were no major judging errors during the event. If you saw any coverage of the event, it was challenging, but fair. I have had a few questions about how you design a slalom course, so I figured I would jot down a few words and show a few pics for those who are interested.

The lighting of the Olympic torch is the finale of every opening ceremony - in Beijing it was no disappointment. I actually had great seats for the event in the judges stands - third row from the track. I must say that the whole event was an impressive show of mass organization of people, something that china prides itself on. Only slightly less impressive was the display of technology; I suppose China's way of showing the world what they can do.The Olympic Whitewater Course was equally impressive. The whole thing runs on 6 pumps (4 running at one time) that draw about 17 cubic meters per second (about 600 cfs) from the lake at the bottom of the course. The water then flows down the man made channel with a drop of about 7 meters over the course of 250 meters (a gradient of about 150 ft/mile). Many of the obstacles are movable, so the actual whitewater can be changed in about 30 minutes when the water is off. For the Olympics, the whitewater did not change for the 3 months prior to the event so that athletes could practice the water. The gates configuration, on the other hand, was unknown to the athletes until just before the race. Once the course map was released, no athletes were allowed to train on the course, meaning that their first trip down the actual gate configuration is their first timed run of the Olympics.

The first drop - gates 4 and 5 of the qualifier When designing a course, there are a few things you have to keep in mind:
1. The course must be fair for left and right handed C-1/C-2 paddlers. This means that if you have a move that is easier for a righty, you have to balance that move with one that is easier for a lefty. This is probably the hardest and most important part of course design. As it turned out, a lefty one the race in C-1, but righties got 2nd and 3rd - a good indicator that the course was fair.

The gate 3-4-5 combination in the final course was a good example of balance. The move was extremely challenging since you had to cross the hole twice. In gate 3, a lefty would have the advantage by being able to pull on the inside then enter the ferry move paddling on the downstream side; a righty on the other hand will have to do a crossbow stroke in 3 and remain on the crossbow while entering the ferry - advantage righty. Once the bow hits the eddy on the right side in 4, however, the righty gets to switch to the right side and work the inside of the turn through 4 and then be on the on-side in the surf back to 5. The lefty has to do all this on the crossbow - advantage righty. Not only is this balanced in time and difficulty, it is also balanced in the nature of the move - each paddler must cross a hole on their offside.

Gates 3, 4 and 5
2. Another thing to consider is the overall difficulty of the course. Since the beginning of the sport, Men and Women / Canoes and Kayaks have all competed on the same course. If you make a course that is hard for the Men's Kayaks, the Women's Kayaks and C-2s will have a hard day. If you design the course for the C-2s and K-1 W, the kayaks will be extremely bunched up. In the case of Beijing, the whitewater course was already very difficult; we decided to make the gate combinations fairly straightforward and let the whitewater separate the best paddlers in the world. At first look, the course we set appeared pretty easy - to be honest, I was trying to make it more challenging but another member of the course design committee kept trying to make it easier; I guess what resulted was a bit of a compromise. That said, I think the end result was about right. The whitewater did its job; three men's kayaks separated themselves from the field for the medals. As for the Women and C-2's - in both cases extremely talented paddlers blew out; probably a combination of tough whitewater and extreme nerves. All in all, I think we got the course difficulty close to right; given the chance to do it over I would still make it a little harder...

3. One of the hardest parts of course designing is making it as easy as possible to judge. There is nothing worse for the sport than a judging controversy; it sucks for the spectators and it really sucks for the athletes. The two common problems are water touches (where water splashes up and makes it look like the paddler touched a gate even though the didn't) and head ducks (50 second penalties where the athlete may or may not have gotten their head in the gate). To minimize the first problem, you not to place the gates immediately below a feature (wave or hole) that the boat will crash through and cause lots of spray. This is something that I had to learn the hard way. In the World Championships in Brazil last year, I set a really cool move where you had to jump a ledge and make a tight turn around the pole. The move was spectacular, but the spray from landing the jump created all sorts of problems for the judges - live and learn.

The head duck problem, on the other hand, is a tough one. Whenever an athlete gets off-line, in order to stay in the gate, they will lean over to get their head in. One way we approached it in Beijing was to make many of the gates super wide (you'll notice this in the coverage). What this did was allow paddlers to get a little bit off-line without incurring a 50 second penalty - instead they just incurred the time penalty it took to get back on-line. Still, no matter how wide you make the gates, someone eventually gets soooo off-line that they have to head duck. In these cases it is such a bad mistake that you don't feel as bad when you have to call the 50. The unfortunate case, and the one that happened most in Beijing) was the head duck on the upstream gates. With the water as fast and as difficult as it was, entering the eddy a split second too early causes the boat to rocket up the eddy before you want it too - causing the athlete to have to duck on the back deck to get the head around the pole. In this case the error is tiny, but the penalty is huge (a 50 second penalty might as well be a DQ in the Olympics). This exact case happened to my good friend and US medal hopeful Scott Parsons. Going into the race he was a clear medal favorite - and after first runs in the qualifier he was sitting 3rd. On his second qualifying run, he got a little offline at the second to last gate (an upstream) and had to do the head duck. The resulting call was a 50 second penalty and he did not make the next round. The only way around this problem is to lower the inside pole on the upstream gates, but this makes the motion in these gates really awkward for the competitors and increases the chances for water touches and other close calls. In every case you try to position judges in the right place to make these calls - in Beijing I think the judges did a good job on these tough calls.

Another American judge in Beijing, Eric Lokken

The hardest part of all of this is watching all the athletes, many of which are friends of mine. You spend 4 years of your life dedicating yourself to something and it all comes down to 90 seconds. In the end, you only get to give out three medals, so most of the people walk away disappointed - your heart breaks for every one of them. For every celebration you see on TV in the Olympics, there are many more tears. In the end, I guess it is the friends you make along the way and the things you learn about yourself and that are really the ultimate reward.

Keep an eye out for a video post of the course soon. Also check out for a few other pictures of the trip

1 comment:

Molly Petersen Nardone said...


I can't explain emphasize enough how satisfying it was to read this. Excellent. The entire time Corby and I were watching the Olympic paddling events I must have asked Corbs a thousand do you decide where to place the gates? how do you judge a head duck penalty? How do you know exactly where above or beneath a hole is the hardest space to place a gate? How amny judges are there? What was Eric thinking when he did put that gate right next to that big blue thing?...and the list went on. Your knowledge is admirable and so fun to see the course from your perspective. Congratulations DId you ever get to paddle the course yourself?

SUch a great time on the river with you and Rebecca. Stoked to see you very soon!