One of the most open men’s canoe slalom fields in the history of the Olympics will take to the water in Tokyo on Sunday, putting the stranglehold which France and Slovakia have had on the event for more than two decades under serious threat.

France and Slovakia have won every men’s canoe gold medal since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The French have had four Games champions, while Slovakia has won at least one medal at every Games since 1996.

But in Tokyo that domination is under serious threat. The current top-ranked paddler in the world is a German, while the only athlete in the field to have ever won a world title is Slovenian.

Slovakia’s hopes rest on the Rio 2016 silver medalist, Matej Benus, while France will rely on Martin Thomas, who defeated Rio gold medalist Denis Gargaud Chanut for the French ticket.

The low down on all our slalom athletes competing in Tokyo

In Tokyo the number one bib will be worn by a German two-time Olympian looking for his first major win on the international stage. Despite being the top ranked C1 paddler on the planet, Sideris Tasiadis has never won an Olympic gold medal, and has never been a world champion.

SIderis isn't looking back at past Olympics, only ahead to Tokyo

After snatching a surprise silver at the London 2012 Olympics, he let the pressure of being favourite in Rio get to him, finishing fifth. He’s now 31, and feels much stronger mentally and physically.

“In 2012 I was a youngster, and there was nobody saying to me you are the favourite there, and that’s why I think I raced there, had fun, and won a medal. It was a little bit of a surprise for me,” Tasiadis said.

“And now everybody knows Tasiadis is now the number one since 2018, and everyone is saying ‘you are the favourite’. Yes, but it is a little bit hard to keep the line.

“I know I can win here, but if you are on the start line, and mentally you’re not there, or you’re not focussed, then you will not win here.”

Simply being from Slovakia is enough for Benus to strike fear into the hearts of fellow competitors. The country has three of the best canoe paddlers in the world, so just earning the one ticket available for Slovakia for Tokyo was in many ways a bigger challenge than winning an Olympic medal.

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

Thomas also had to endure a tough selection process before getting the nod for France. He finished eighth at the ICF world championships in 2019, and won the silver medal at the European Championships in the same year.

Like Tasiadis, gold medals have been hard to come by, not just for Thomas, but for most of the field. Adam Burgess, representing Great Britain, will be chasing his first major win.

British C1 team mates, Adam and Ryan, talk each other up

Slovenia’s Benjamin Savsek is the exception. World champion in 2017, silver medalist in 2014 and 2015, and European champion in 2019 and 2020 is a cv that will hold him in good stead in an open Olympic field.

And if winning form is good form, Czech Lukas Rohan, a gold medalist at an ICF world cup event in Prague on the eve of the Olympics, deserves to be considered among the potential medalists in Tokyo.

Canoe Slalom