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World-Class Competition
Design, Construction Innovations in Top Olympic Venue

By Deborah L. Vence

Innovations with sustainability make up the Olympic venue design at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in London—host of the canoe/kayak slalom events for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

"In their planning for the 2012 Games, London Olympic organizers were intent on addressing their stated mission to collectively provide world-class facilities for athletes, beacons of excellence for communities, and a social, environmental and economic legacy that would enhance the lives of future generations," said Bob Campbell, managing director of Whitewater Parks International, LLC, in the Glenwood Springs, Colo., office. WPI specializes in whitewater sports, specifically in the design, development and operation of state-of-the-art facilities and paddling-oriented programs.

"Beyond its Olympic requirements," he said, "the venue developed for the 2012 Canoe/Kayak Slalom events was also directed to serve as a catalyst for regeneration in Northeast London, as part of a larger regional park, creating new experiences for users participating in sport, recreation and educational activities." So, when the venue is not hosting top-level competitions, it will be used for a commercial rafting experience that will be made available to the general public.

The first-of-its-kind dual channel, self-contained facility—designed by U.S.-based Whitewater Parks International (WPI)—includes a 1,000-foot Olympic channel with a 2 percent gradient, along with a separate 525-foot training channel with a 1 percent gradient. The contemporary design has set a new standard for purpose-built whitewater and without a doubt will have a strong influence on future projects.

"The design intent was to ensure Olympic-caliber sport requirements, combined with operational efficiency and affordability. The major design innovation is that the two courses can be operated independently or concurrently, as the water is being pumped from the same 2 -acre on-site reservoir," Campbell explained.

One of the primary design challenges was to create a whitewater facility that would excite Olympic athletes and spectators, all while incorporating the multifaceted elements needed to build a successful legacy.

"Achieving this range of outcomes was critical for the facility to leverage all its attributes to their greatest potential, providing extended economic benefits to the surrounding community while meeting a host of other civic and social needs," Campbell said.

"In addition to ensuring that specific Olympic technical requirements were met, additional design objectives included creating consistent and predictable hydraulic features, enough in-channel space to accommodate numerous boats, multiple access points, ample water depth, effective warm-up/down areas, spectator areas situated close to the action, aesthetically pleasing surroundings and well-planned support facilities," he added.

In the coming Summer Olympics, athletes will navigate along the large channel's flattened "C" configuration that features two dramatic drops and a more consistent whitewater challenge. The shape also creates a long straight section in the channel that keeps the current rushing freely down the center of the course at 4,000 gallons per second, instead of losing momentum by curving around a bend, he explained.

"If you ask the world's leading slalom athletes and coaches, 'What makes an Olympic whitewater venue successful?' you'll hear a variety of opinions, but also discover some common themes that resonate through the mix of ideas," Campbell noted. "Continuous whitewater, distinct features, consistency, evenness and suitability for training are several of these thematic characteristics for which there is wide-ranging consensus. Some of the previous Olympic venues used for this purpose have struggled with delivering these characteristics."

The design and construction innovations at Lee Valley White Water Centre conceivably came about, in part, as a result of the concept at Penrith Whitewater Stadium, which was built for the 2000 Olympics in Australia. The stadium became a groundbreaking concept that has since defined a new era in whitewater sport and venue design.

"It has sustained an illustrious track record of full commercial operation, diverse programming and financial success. 2012 Olympic organizers looked to Whitewater Parks International (WPI), whose principals were responsible for the Penrith model, to minimize design risks in creating an appropriate venue for London," Campbell said.

"WPI applied its practical experience and lessons learned from Penrith to the challenge of taking Olympic Canoe/Kayak Slalom venue design to the next level," he added, "drawing upon its sound planning principles to reduce environmental impacts and pursue a design that prioritizes efficiency with an eye to cost-effective operations."

And, so far, reaction to the new venue has been positive.

"The newly completed Lee Valley White Water Centre has already been hailed as one of the best and most challenging Olympic paddling venues to date. After last month's Olympic Test Event, visiting slalom athletes and coaches from across the globe added resounding approval of the venue," Campbell said. "Their reactions across the board were extremely positive and confirmed that this venue will deliver the necessary characteristics for an exciting and fair Olympic competition."

The canoe/kayak slalom events in London are scheduled for July 29 through Aug. 2, 2012. To boot, the Centre opened in April 2011, offering kayaking and rafting activities to the public—15 months ahead of the start of the 2012 Olympics. Additionally, spectator capacity is 12,000 people per day, with 60,000 spectators expected over the five days of Olympic competition. The venue is on a 25-acre site located in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, and situated in the heart of the 10,000-acre, 26-mile long Lee Valley Park.

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