200 meters splashes onto Olympic canoe program
WINDSOR, England (AP) - Ed McKeever has been dubbed "Usain Bolt on Water,'' and he showed why Friday as the 200-meter canoe sprint made quite a splash on its Olympic debut.
Racing in front of a flag-waving crowd under sunny, cloudless skies at Dorney Lake, the barrel-chested McKeever proved he was the world's fastest kayaker by clocking the quickest time over the heats and semifinals of the marquee K-1.
"It's been fantastic - the buzz you get when they announce your name on the start line and the roar you get, it's amazing,'' said McKeever, whose crossed in 35.087 seconds in his heat and then easily won his semifinal.
McKeever was given an extra boost by seeing archrival Piotr Siemionowski, the world champion from Poland, fail to reach the final after finishing only sixth in his semi.
Mark de Jonge of Canada is set to be the Briton's biggest challenger for gold in Saturday's final after winning both his races on the penultimate day of competition.
There was also a shock in the C-2 where world and European champion Valentin Demyanenko of Azerbaijan failed to get out of the heats.
Canoeing officials replaced the 500-meter race with the 200 sprint in a bid to inject more excitement into the sport and try to move it out of rowing's shadow at the Olympics. Judging by the crowd's reaction, it seems to have worked.
The 200-meter races played out in front of the whole length of three packed grandstands. There were a number of tight races as well, with photo finishes needed to determine the winner in two of the heats and one of the semifinals.
"It's very exciting to watch, and I think everyone's pretty excited,'' De Jonge said. "You can line up a whole crowd for the whole race and see the entire thing.''
The introduction of the 200 has turned McKeever's career upside down, too. As a racer over 500 and 1,000 meters, the 28-year-old trainee accountant from England's West Country struggled for endurance. Now, though, he is in his element over the shorter sprints, earning him the "Usain Bolt'' moniker from the British media.
His arms whirling like windmills, McKeever - donning a long-sleeve, torso-hugging top and sunglasses - exploded from the starting block and held his line well as he paddled three strokes per second.
Because of his time in the heat, he had a comfortable cushion in the semi. Maxime Beaumont of France placed second, with Hungary's Miklos Dudas and German veteran Ronald Rauhe also qualifying. Siemionowski trailed by nearly 1 1/2 seconds behind McKeever, the 2010 world champion.
"I know he had some problems this year with injury,'' De Jonge said of Siemionowski. "It's weird to see that.''
Ivan Shtyl, the 2010 world champion from Russia, took full advantage of Demyanenko's demise to qualify quickest for the C-1 final ahead of Spain's Alfonso Benavides Lopez. Sebastian Brendel of Germany, who won the 500-meter C-1 on Thursday, failed to advance, though, highlighting the difference between the events.
The Russian pair of Yury Postrigay and Alexander Dyachenko won their semifinal in K-2 200, easily beating favorites Liam Heath and Jon Schofield of Britain to qualify fastest.
And in the only 200-meter event for women, Lisa Carrington of New Zealand and Hungary's Natasa Douchev-Janics set up a probable shootout in the K-1 final.
Douchev-Janics is bidding to win a fourth Olympic gold medal, having missed out in the K-2 500 when she and Katalin Kovacs were pushed into silver by rivals from Germany on Thursday.
Another incentive for Douchev-Janics is that a gold Saturday will likely see her country finish top of the canoe sprint medals above Germany. Both have three golds each and Germany doesn't have any favored boats in any of the four 200-meter disciplines.