When the 1996 Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta, Georgia, the Ocoee Whitewater Center served as the canoe slalom. It’s the only in-river course to be used for Olympic slalom competition, as others are man-made, such as the Lee Valley Whitewater Center in London, constructed for the 2012 games. These more recent Olympic venues, built closer to their host cities, rely entirely on pumped water and use smaller concrete channels designed to minimize the energy cost of running the pumps.
Since most Olympic host cities are located far from usable whitewater, canoe slalom is a relatively recent addition to the Olympic games. The 1996 Atlanta Games produced the third such venue by modifying the then-dry stream bed of the Upper Ocoee River. As the only in-river Olympic venue ever, located two-hours north of Atlanta, it had the greatest water volume, the highest drop, and the steepest slope. The first two Olympic canoe slalom venues were canals built around dams on small rivers in nearby mountains: Augsburg Eiskanal for the 1972 Munich Games, and Segre Olympic Park for the 1992 Barcelona Games.
A 1,640 foot stretch of the Upper Ocoee River was narrowed by two-thirds to create the drops and eddies needed for a slalom course. Today, the course is watered only on summer weekends, 34 days a year, for use by guided rafts and private boaters. When the river has water, 24 commercial rafting companies take more than 750 raft passengers through the course each day. No longer used as a slalom course, the Ocoee Whitewater Center now operates as part of the U.S. Forest Service, offering assistance to hikers, mountain bikers, and even hosting conferences and weddings. On average, 300,000 people visit here annually.
For the final slalom race of the 1996 Olympic games, there were 25 gates, 6 upstream (red) and 19 downstream (green). The 500-meter course was twice the length of the Lee Valley course, but with a similar number of gates. At Ocoee, racers had to sprint between the widely separated gates at the top and then maneuver through the closely spaced gates around the Humongous rapid at the bottom.
The named rapids are Best Ledge, the drop above Olympic gate #1; Smiley’s, where a midstream boulder splits the stream below gate #3; Slam Dunk, the ledge between gates #8 and #9; the Conveyor Belt wave train, gates #10 – #17; Callihan Ledge at gate #18; and Humongous, gates #21 – #24.
Humongous is the steepest and most constricted rapid, with a wave train on the left side of a midstream boulder and two big drops on the right side, Godzilla and Humongous Hole. Olympic upstream gate #23 was placed on the right bank in the small eddy between the two drops. To avoid getting stuck in Humongous Hole and missing the rest of the gates, slalom racers needed to catch the Godzilla wave to stop their downstream momentum when entering the eddy, and catch it again to surf across the current toward the boulder and upstream gate #24.
Commercial rafts often go down the right side at Humongous for the two-drop roller coaster ride, sometimes flipping and dumping their occupants in the water at the second drop. Here at Outland, we take pride in the historical importance of our river, and we strive to give our guests the same experience that competitors received as the world watched, over twenty years ago.
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