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If you've never sat in 90� heat, eating a Crumbed Cutlet of Prawn, on the outskirts of Emu Plains, beside a man-made river, to watch a Frenchman paddle a canoe, you'll be forgiven for thinking it's no spectator sport. Certainly, none of the celebrity fans omnipresent in Olympic Park—Chelsea Clinton, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch-crossed the khaki-colored plains west of Sydney to see the slalom finals of canoe and women's kayak. But then the Clintons don't much care for Whitewater, which was everywhere in evidence on the $3.6 million, wood-and-concrete, raging river that human chutzpah created in the parched municipality of Penrith, home of Whitewater Stadium, an amusement-park flume ride on growth hormones.
The 320-meter "river" was really a malevolent Maytag machine, into which canoeists (men only) and kayakers (men and women) voluntarily dumped themselves, like dirty linens, into the spin cycle. Paddlers must get from start to finish as fast as possible without touching any of the 23 slalom gates along the way. This is, of course, an unreasonable request, made all the more so by the six gates athletes must navigate while paddling upstream, against a current of 14 cubic meters of water per second. It's the rough equivalent of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, then dog-paddling back up it again.
Yet far and away the most contentious force encountered by paddlers in Penrith was the public address announcer, a man whose voice needed no electronic amplification, a man who kept shouting, "If you don't dig this mess, you've got the wrong address!" Having evidently apprenticed at monster-truck rallies, he did play-by-play over the loudspeaker, as they do in bad baseball movies: "He's just carving up this course...ooh, there's a pretty upstream...beautiful river-feel by this paddler...." We novices, paddle-addled, attempted to keep up.
There were 12,500 of us, standing room only, pounding down prawn sandwiches as paddlers went off every 2� minutes to the kind of ear-piercing techno music favored by German disc jockeys. It all seemed unnecessary in the Walden-like world of carbon-fiber conveyances, but then this is a television age, and some 30 television cameras, many of them remote controlled and mobile, kept a Cyclopsean eye trained on every inch of the course.
To further capture the feel of mass-marketed American spectator extravaganzas, organizers nicknamed the most perilous parts of the Whitewater run: Vortex, Knuckles, Twilight Zone, Funnel Web and Deep Fryer. Earlier in the week a photographer had slipped and fallen into one of these diabolical rapids, holding his camera aloft, like a periscope, as he went under the water. This set up an excellent joke. Q: Are there any fish in this river? A: There is one snapper. But the photographer was, alas, rescued.
Chances are he was there to shoot Tony Estanguet, the No. 1-ranked 22-year-old from Pau, France, who is on his way to becoming—and here's an image to exercise the imagination—the Michael Jordan of canoeing. Estanguet represented his nation in Sydney after eliminating his brother Patrice in French qualifying. "I knew he was the obstacle to my dream," says Estanguet, who found few other obstacles in these finals: The combined time of his two runs, each of which lasted less than two minutes, was nearly two seconds faster than that of the silver medalist. In a sport often measured in hundredths of a second (or 1/25 of an eye blink), a two-second victory is Secretariat-like. Or as the P.A. announcer put it about this paddling prodigy: "Everyone else is just playing volleyball."
The women's kayak final, which came afterward, was won by 32-year-old Stepanka Hilgertova, the 1996 gold medalist and reigning world champion. Hilgertova hails from the Czech Republic, where canoeing and kayaking enjoy immense popularity.
Not only is kayak the only palindromic sport in the Olympics, but it's a palindromic piece of equipment as well, bow and stern largely indistinguishable. Is the sport coming or going? By day's end, the answer was clear: Coming, to judge by the reaction of spectators, who felt unexpectedly forlorn when the racing was over, and the medals awarded, and we found ourselves up this artificial creek, suddenly without a paddle.