Frenchman Tony Estanguet afforded himself a wry smile when he heard the roars and saw the Slovakian flags waving before his surge to gold in the Olympic canoe slalom C1 final on Tuesday.
Slovakia’s favorite son Michal Martikan had just sliced down the Lee Valley White Water course in 98.31 seconds, guiding his bright red canoe through the surging foam to take the lead.
Next to shoot the rapids was Estanguet, who like Martikan already had two Olympic gold medals to his name in the event during an intense rivalry that goes back more than 15 years.
Launching out of the starting pool, the 34-year-old from the foothills of the Pyrenees, where he learned to paddle, Estanguet found the perfect balance of speed and precision to negotiate the 23 gates 1.25 seconds quicker than his old adversary.
Spinning through the last upstream gate before driving to the finish, Estanguet roared his delight when seeing his time — the pain of his Beijing flop consigned to history.
In the end they were divided by Germany’s Sideris Tasiadis, who snatched silver, but it was the Martikan factor that had inspired Estanguet to take gold, as it has done throughout a career that has also brought him three world titles.
“He is a great champion and it’s because of him that I work so hard in my training,” Estanguet, who once described his sport as “one long family sporting vacation,” told reporters, his chunky gold medal hanging from his neck.
“That’s because I know that’s exactly what he’ll be doing. When he’s on the starting list you know that you have to do something special to beat him,” Estanguet said. “I wasn’t surprised he produced a great run again today. It was not so easy to compete after him because I heard the fans cheering and I was sure he had done a good time. I just tried to stay me and concentrate on my job.”
It was an emotional moment for Estanguet, who suffered a setback four years ago in Beijing when he did not even make the final, having carried the French flag at the opening ceremony.
He is now the only French Olympian to win three gold medals in the same discipline.
“Quite honestly, I did not realize that,” said Estanguet, who was congratulated after by French Minister of Sports Valerie Fourneyron, who called it a “beautiful victory.”
While he now has three Olympic golds to the two of Martikan, the Slovak’s bronze medal was a record fifth by a canoe slalomist at the Olympic Games.
All sports flourish with great rivalries. Tennis has Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, ice hockey has Canada versus the US, while athletics has been blessed with the likes of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.
Canoe slalom has Estanguet and Martikan, but it may well be reaching its conclusion with the Frenchman not sure if he will continue riding the white water through to Rio de Janeiro.
“It was good to have another big fight with Michal,” Estanguet said. “We have a special story. I told him that I respect him a lot and he has made some of the great moments in my career. This medal today is very special, it’s probably my last chance at the Olympic Games. I won’t decide today, but the next few months, and four years would be very tough.”
Martikan, who can content himself with a fifth Olympic medal, said he had no thoughts of retirement.
“I love this sport very much and I can’t stop now,” the 34-year-old from the Tatra mountains said. “Although it’s my fifth medal in five Olympic Games, I’m a bit disappointed. It wasn’t a difficult course.”