Inside the 2017 Freestyle Worlds with James Mc Beath – #5 The Worlds Org, Then and Now
Everyday during the 2017 ICF World Freestyle Championships, Jackson Kayak’s James McBeath is sending us his off beat views on what is going in San Juan where the worlds are taking place this year. Right about now, James McBeath should be sitting uncomfortably on a rock in Argentina covering his 11th World Freestyle Championships. Buuuut he’s not. He’s sitting comfortably in the snow of Eastern Canada watching on from the proverbial online peanut gallery. Follow along each day as he recaps what he sees from a distance. Photography: Peter Holcombe/ famagogo.com
For many of you who are fans of these World’s style events your experiences from the peanut gallery are, well, limited to the ‘gloss’ that is presented to you. If you have ever organized an event that takes a year in the making, uber logistics, hours of negotiating and hundreds of volunteers you may have had that one guy come up to you and say “hey, that was awesome, but couldn’t the seats be shaded?”. Virtual throat punch! What the World’s audience sees from both in the stands and from afar via streaming video is only the tip of the organizational iceberg. Whats underneath is … well, more ice. Ice and thousands of man-hours and dollars.
No Uncle James’ article can be without the “back in the day” section. So… back in the day the whitewater rodeo was nothing but a few rocks, a rock box (or “ghetto blaster”), blank pages, stubby pencils, calculators (we can’t add), Kristine Jackson herding cats and a South African getting angry; not necessarily in that order. The crowd sat amongst the judges or vice versa. There was always a token camp fire going, generators placed strategically in behind the tree line with 2000 feet of extension cord everyone collected around the local townships. In later years the groundbreaking 2×4 laden “judges stand” was introduced. The judges got the fold out chairs but scribes still had to sit on the hard wood. There were no opening ceremonies and awards tended to involve either the shoulders of people of different heights or hay bails. All was simple. All was good. It was the dawn of a groovy community feel. Over the years through in to the 2000’s these home grown World’s rodeos did grow up. The World’s in Thun, Switzerland were the first with a big screen and live scoring. The events were growing up, organization became more and more complex. Freestyle kinda needed help. In came the International Canoe Federation (that “ICF » acronym I’ve been throwing around all week).
As I look at todays drone videos the infrastructure is a tad different (insert sarcasm). Note also that there were no drones back then; occasionally some dude would climb a tree. The first clue that we aren’t in Kansas any more would be the opening ceremonies. Yep with the dawn of the ICF generation comes the pomp and circumstance including local cultural entertainment, the parade of athletes and opening speeches from dignitaries. Our freestyle head (Lluis) has a ponytail and wears a suit in a cool mix of a pure paddler and someone about to marry the Queen’s daughter. The ceremonies close with the “athletes/judges promise” and the raising of the official flags. Once done we get to the “let the games begin” portion of the program and head to the river.
At riverside there are ICF required elements that have converted our rock strewn venues to massive villages. On the San Juan River, as we speak, are over 45 new temporary buildings (mostly tents) that make up the athletes village (one tent per team), judges tent, VIP area, Media Zone, Judges stand, organizers area, registration tent and a jumbotron opposite for live video replay and scores. Instead of picking up the local country or gospel station, we have 20,000 watts pumping hip hop onto the crowds and athletes. Instead of shaky camcorders, drones worth more than my home circle the sky, camera persons sit at every angle to the show and commentators in multiple languages try their best to keep up with Quim Fontain’s moves on the water. Not sure what the Spanish translation is for “McNasty » but its funny listening to them try. The dignitaries multiply typically after opening ceremonies with visiting mayors and local business folk fill the VIP tent and the media tent gets jammed with those hoping for the best shot and story. The stands they put up play host to hundreds who show up with cowbells and that blasted WWII siren thing that EJ always brings. The French bring their drums. Always the drums. Its a cool scene, a busy scene and VERY different from events of yesteryear.
The biggest evolution in our wee world has been in the judging. In the early years there was no formal training except for an adhoc “I think he knows what the moves are”, “can they count ends?” and “no, he can’t count? Ok, he can scribe”. Scoring evolved in a couple of avenues: the actual scoring of moves and the scoring systems itself. Memories of countless, some times heated, athlete’s meetings where score values were established and re-established as boats evolved, skills evolved and new moves were invented. In the growth period scoring had to be fluid and was far from an exact science. Excel spreadsheet based systems began popping up on the tours but nothing became standard, again mostly because of the ever-changing nature of the sport as a whole.
Today’s judging via the ICF is now very formal. One of the most key points in freestyle judging history was the introduction of the “variety score” factor forcing athletes to never repeat a move in their routine. That returned the focus on moves, new moves and new elements like bonuses and trophy moves etc. I won’t go as far as saying it made everything easier as we now witness paddlers wracking up 1800 point rides: You need all fingers and toes to count that high in 45 seconds. With trained judges, formal meetings before, during and after, involving athlete representatives and modern, computer run scoring systems, the art of judging is now streamlined. A cool turning point for me was seeing live scores for the first time on the big screen at the NOC worlds. I remember thinking, « Wow. Live scoring… now where’s my beer and salmon crackers? » (I was in the VIP tent of course).
Each World Championships events improve. Freestyle is in it’s teen years and as it matures to the promise of a place in the Olympics, new heights will be reachable for athletes, coaches and the organizational individuals involved. Its not for everyone, this progress thing; but you have to admit its getting pretty impressive. The good news is that the “loser’s party” will always be athlete run!