Slovakia’s Matej Benus will head into Sunday’s heats of the men’s canoe slalom at the Tokyo Olympics carrying the pressure of representing a nation that has not missed a medal in the event for the past six Games.

Added to that pressure, Benus is the reigning silver medalist from Rio in 2016. In the absence of the gold medalist, France’s Denis Gargaud Chanut, it means Benus has beaten every other competitor in Sunday’s competition at an Olympics before.

He is telling himself Tokyo will be just like any other canoe slalom race, but is having a tough time convincing himself.

“You can say in your head that it is just a normal race, but it’s an Olympic race, so it will be different,” Benus said.

“You need to be mentally more prepared than for the world cups, so it’s different. I have had a lot of experiences throughout my career, so I think I will be prepared.”

Slovakia’s incredible record in the men’s canoe began when 17-year-old Michal Martikan won Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996. He then won silver medals behind Frenchman Tony Estanguet in 2000 and 2004, returned to the top of the podium in Beijing in 2008, and then won bronze in London in 2012.

Benus had to see off Martikan to qualify for Rio, and justified that form with a silver medal, and then outlasted the veteran to qualify for Tokyo.

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This qualification process has been the toughest and most bruising, a three-way tussle between a trio of athletes who could rightly be considered the best male canoe paddlers in the world.

The arm wrestle between Benus, Martikan and Alexander Slafkovsky gripped the canoe slalom community, with Benus not securing the Tokyo ticket until the final selection race.

“It was a little bit stressful, but we have done these selections before, so I knew what was expected,” he said.

“It’s pretty difficult because just one guy can go to the Olympics, and we have in the top five in the world, three Slovaks. It’s very important to be able to race a good final, and to be mentally strong.”

It is often said qualifying for the Slovak men’s canoe slalom Olympic team is much harder than winning an Olympic medal, but Benus has been racing long enough to know and respect the depth in the competition.

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He is also aware that even though he, Martikan and Slafkovsky have been crowned C1 team world champions for nine consecutive years, you have to go back to 2007 for the last time a Slovakian won a men’s canoe world title.

It underlines how open the contest for Olympic gold will be next week.

“The guys from Germany, Czech, Great Britain, Slovenia – they are so strong, so you need to have a really good run if you want to win a medal,” Benus said.

“Sometimes I have a good run and I don’t win a medal, so that’s okay. It’s not frustrating.

I like the Tokyo course, it’s similar to the course in Rio, with some of the sections in different places, but I like it. I’m looking forward to it. It is true the competition there will be different because there will be no spectators, so it will be different.”

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Canoe Slalom