Writer: Richard Fox | Sportscene

Rio Olympic champion Denis Gargaud has not moved far from his roots in the Mediterranean city of Marseille, not even while training for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. But before the “Marseillais” confirms plans to defend his title in Tokyo 2020, he has an ambitious new project in mind: building the first demountable artificial river in his home city.

“Marseille is where my heart is, it is where my home is and it is where I grew up and learned how to paddle”.

“In between training camps and competitions, it is where I come back to, to be with my family, to recover and energise for the next phase”.

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Gargaud is calm and humble, a free spirit in many ways. As he says, “I’m a little bit different, I haven’t followed a conventional path in life, I left school early, for example. I trained outside the system in the lead up to Rio, I look at alternative approaches to training and competition to suit my own needs and sometimes it means that less is more”.

For the self-made man, it has also meant waiting for his time.

A world champion in C1 and silver medallist in the C2 event at the 2011 canoe slalom world championships, the future looked bright for Gargaud. It was hard to then imagine that he would completely miss the London 2012 Olympic Games when Tony Estanguet claimed the only spot for France in the tightly fought selection campaign and went on to win his 3rd Olympic gold. Meanwhile, Gargaud’s C2 partnership with Fabien Lefevre faltered. “We didn’t even speak to each other”, he said.

Denis Gargaud at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Sportscene

The gap grew wider as Gargaud slipped to 5th at the 2013 world championship, failed to make the final in 2014 and was not even on the French team for the 2015 world championships/Rio Olympic qualification in London. A 2016 Olympic berth seemed like a long shot.

Behind the scenes, Gargaud launched his own company, became a father and changed coaches, forming a relationship with Benoit Peschier. A 2004 Olympic kayak champion, Peschier guided Gargaud’s preparation through the French trials and on to the Olympic gold.

“It was an unlikely fit at first” admits Gargaud, “on the water Benoit was always at the extreme of effort, work and intensity, off the water he is different, a gentler person, highly qualified as coach and physio and we blend together well”.

So, what about Tokyo in 2020?

“Wait and see”, he says. In elite athlete speak that’s don’t count me out, but don’t hold me to it, either. Yet.

“First things first, a home world championships in Pau is hard to look past and that will be my focus for the year”.

It is like a new beginning for the soon to be 30-year-old and his coach, Peschier, who has been offered a formal deal with the French Federation. “We are now integrated inside the system”, Gargaud says with a wry smile.

“We’re no longer outcasts. It’s a new adventure. I don’t believe in setting objectives this time, I want to be free and explore how far I can go, without limits”.

And his next project?

“Bringing a river to the city, why not?” says the quiet achiever. “I think we can do it in Marseille with the right support and, what’s more, if you follow the international debate on sustainable venues, the RiverBox is a solution for our times”.

“The sport needs a shop window to show the rest of the world, what is possible for a lower cost and, if need be, as a temporary solution. We can’t roll back time but we can learn lessons and change the way we look at things going forward”.

That means bringing together support from the City of Marseille, the French Federation, the International Canoe Federation and the supplier, Hydrostadium, a subsidiary branch of the global energy giant EDF, and providing an operating solution with risk management and insurance cover.

Plans for the Riverbox at Marseille Beach: see “Stade d’eaux vives” bottom left.

It is not a new idea to think of a whitewater project in Marseille. The sport has a rich history of success in slalom and wild water disciplines at a national, world and Olympic level and is well connected locally with the political powers that be.

What’s new is the RiverBox, a concept that makes sense for a city like Marseille for several reasons. The city is forward thinking and has been designated the European Capital for Sport in 2017, hosting numerous major events including world championships in one of the newest Olympic sports, skateboarding.

Marseille likes a show. To feel the vibrant energy of France’s second city you should go to the Stade Velodrome to watch the Olympique de Marseille football team (preferably when they are taking on arch rivals, Paris St Germain); take in the Southern beachfront district in summer; or visit the newly restored Docks area which bustles day and night.

France is a candidate for 2024 Olympics and already has a project underway close to the capital city, but the significance of the RiverBox has not escaped the thinking of Paris 2024 co-president and IOC member, Tony Estanguet.

In a recent article by Alice Bomboy in the innovation section of French publication, Science et Avenir, the enthusiasm of the triple Olympic champion rang clear.

“It meets the expectations of the IOC in terms of re-usable venues on one hand, and the growing demands of event organisers, who want to create entertainment and a spectacle, on the other hand”, Estanguet said.

France has every reason to be supportive of the concept and opportunity. Demonstrating its commitment to long-term solutions for sports inside the Olympic Movement, beyond what is committed for Tokyo 2020 or the Paris 2024 bid, makes sense in the current climate of questioning about the cost of the Games, legacy issues and the future viability of the bidding process.For the ICF and Hydrostadium, who were partners in the combined solution for the Sydney 2000 project, there is a real opportunity to showcase the sport at a time of need.Hydrostadium engineer, Nicolas Baillon, who presented the concept to international coaching representatives at the end of 2016 said:“The essential components of the new concept have been validated, we are now studying the behaviour of the pumps for the artificial surf wave, which we have developed elsewhere”.What now makes most sense is for a concept to be shaped into a reality through a concerted effort of the vested interests.

Zoom-in of the pumping station.

Gargaud is not just a dreamer, he knows there is much work to be done to persuade investors and to engage the political will.“The technical part is not the issue; it can be built and it will work. We are shaping the business plan and looking at the insurance and liability aspects as that will add real meaning to the project and help us get it across the line.”“The advantages are the location in a high traffic, attractive and popular beach zone, the low operating costs to pump water and the multi activity concept with a surf wave attachment to the whitewater channel”.“If you have ever been to the beach in Marseille, you will know there are not too many waves in sight, but there are lots of people wanting to surf”.It may be that the Tokyo train has already left the station, and the 2020 organising committee is committed to its current project for a canoe slalom venue. But what if the train is halted by unforeseen challenges ahead, wouldn’t a real-life example of an alternative venue be a better solution for the sport, if not for Tokyo, then for the future?And for Denis Gargaud, why not a RiverBox concept that is first ‘made in Marseille’?

The RiverBox


The whitewater stadium goes mobile

RiverBox® — a unique concept from Hydrostadium — it is a river that can be dismantled and transported. It can be used to stage whitewater events in exceptional indoor and outdoor venues like soccer stadiums, parks, and sporting facilities. Once the event is over, RiverBox® can be reassembled in a permanent location dedicated to whitewater recreation.

RIVERBOX® – how it works in 3 key points

  1. The main pool serves as both a water reservoir to supply water to the river and a warm-up and staging area for competitors.
  2. The scaffolded whitewater river, which is composed of assembled wooden parts on which new mobile obstacles are installed.
  3. The pumping station, which consists of prefabricated modules configured on the basis of the desired flow. Each module has a pump with suction and discharge element.

RIVERBOX® specification

  • Surface required: 7,000m², less than a soccer stadium
  • Water volume: 10,000 m3, less than three Olympic pools
  • Water flow: 12m3/s per pumping, or 850 KW
  • Length of whitewater: 220 m> Width: 9 m
  • Cost: Costs are controlled by using products with a proven design (pool can be dismantled) and prefabricated components (pumping station).
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