Hearts were broken, goals were realised and dreams were kept alive on a difficult opening day of the men’s canoe slalom competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.

Like a scene from Macbeth, the warm bubbling water brought toil and trouble for some, but most survived to fight another summer’s day.

They spoke of the eerie feeling of competing in an empty stadium, with support staff banned from yelling encouragement. Some didn’t seem to care there were empty seats everywhere, others said they were disappointed. But all were united in their appreciation to finally be racing at the Olympic Games after more than a year of uncertainty.

First time Olympians talked of nerves and excitement. Three newcomers – Australia’s Daniel Watkins, Ireland’s Liam Jegou and Canada’s Cameron Smedley, were so jittery they completely missed gates on their first runs.

Watkins and Jegou both made amends on their second runs.

“Nerves definitely got to me on the first run and got the better of me.I suppose I let myself wallow in self pity for 10 or 15 minutes, and then came back and reset,” Watkins said.

“It was a tough second run for sure. Second runs are always nasty, and at the Olympics they’re even worse,” Jegou said.

“There was a lot on the line, we’ve all been training for this for a  very long time, so that second run was nerve-wracking. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough.”

For Smedley, though, there was to be no redemption.

“It was a tough day at the office. It wasn’t the performance I was looking for or the race I knew I could put out there, it just didn’t happen for me. I guess today just wasn’t my day,” he said.

Checkout all the bios of slalom athletes Tokyo

It was definitely the day for Kazakhstan’s Alexandr Kulikov, who admitted to feeling like he had walked onto the set of Land of the Giants. But he held his nerve on his Olympic debut, and gets to come back on Monday for an Olympic semi-final.

“I was scared. I was very scared. It’s scary to be at this competition, I have not paddled at this level before,” he said.

“Making a semi-final is my dream. I’m very happy to be here, even though it is a little bit strange with no people here.”

There was no happy ending for Senegal’s Jean-Pierre Bourhis at his second Olympics. The 26-year-old struggled to put his best run together, revealing after his race that he had been battling injury.

“It’s very frustrating. I was injured a few days ago on my ribs, and I had to wear protection to race, and I felt at number seven it was hurting, but I kept on fighting until the end,” he said.

Experience a ride onboard with Jean-Pierre with this 360 video of Extreme Slalom

The Olympic Games always throws up surprises, both good and bad. American Zachary Lokken produced a good surprise, coming in fourth fastest for the semi-finals. He revealed after that his secret weapon was the empty stands.

“There were definitely some nerves during that first run, but after it was done there was definitely a weight off my shoulders. I know what I can do, I just want to show everyone else what I can do as well,” he said.

“I’m enjoying the empty stands a bit more. I even tell my teammates not to run next to me down the course, because I can sometimes get distracted, so I’m actually happy that I can just focus on my race. It is a bummer that people can’t see this awesome sport, but for my race I’m totally okay with it.”

Great Britain’s Adam Burgess, a keen student of yogo and other assorted relaxation techniques, was feeling anything but relaxed leading into Sunday. But channeling all his experience, the 29-year-old was able to put together two solid runs.

“I’ve been so nervous the last 24 hours or so. I slept quite well last night, but any time I think about the race, I notice my heart starts beating a little bit faster,” Burgess said.

“Its something we actually try and embrace, because we know I race better when I feel my back is up against the wall and I have something to prove.”

Spain’s Anders Elosegi is competing at his fourth Olympics, and definitely the weirdest one yet. Twice he has fallen just one place short of an Olympic medal. At 33, this may be has last best chance of breaking through.

“This is as tough as my first and second and third Games, but I’ve been training to win a medal here, my goal is to get a medal,” he said.

“I know it is going to be difficult, but I know if I do my job I will be at least fighting for it.”

And what about for the world’s number one ranked canoe paddler, flying below the radar and sneaking into the semi-finals as the sixth fastest competitor?

“You always have to go hard because it is the Olympic Games. The medals are tomorrow, not today.”

Indeed they are. Sunday was just the appetiser, the entrée and the main course are yet to come. Let the fire burn and the cauldron bubble…

Canoe Slalom