By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Think Alpine ski slalom, throw in some bucking bronco moves and then drench the whole image in foaming white water and spray and you're somewhere close to Olympic canoe slalom.
Qualification rounds got under way at one of the less-celebrated but most spectacular purpose-built London 2012 venues on Sunday as the world's best paddlers tackled the Lee Valley White Water complex in anger for the first time.
Thousands of fans arriving to watch the preliminary runs of the men's canoe single (C1) and men's kayak single (K1) trudged along the towpath alongside the adjacent River Lee navigation canal, a popular mooring for slow-moving narrow boats.
The pace was a little more frenetic down the 300-metre chute of churning water constructed for the Games.
There, athletes must battle the elements, negotiating 25 green or red gates suspended above the water, several of which must be tackled upstream - a remarkable feat of power and precision considering the force of H2O in their faces.
The leafy, undulating fringes of north east London are certainly not the Rockies, or even the Tatra mountains of Slovakia where Olympic C1 champion Michal Martikan learned to shoot the rapids, yet designers have conjured a remarkable, man-made stretch of wild water.
A 10,000 square meters lake feeds five huge pumps which deliver 13,000 liters of water per second - enough, according to organizers to fill the Aquatics Centre pool in Stratford in 60 seconds.
It took the paddlers a little longer than that to complete their descents on Sunday, around 90 seconds for the medal favorites, but even they found it treacherous.
Martikan, winner of two golds and two silvers in the discipline from the last four Olympics, landed a 50-second penalty in his first run but set the quickest time in a rip-roaring second leg to book his place in Tuesday's 12-man semi-final along with old adversary, Frenchman Tony Estanguet.
Others, like Czech Stanislav Jezek, who says his sporting philosophy is "have fun or go home" produced what he described as some "Eskimo rolls" to "keep the crowd entertained".
"I did a couple of rolls, got my face full of water," Jezek, who finished fifth in Beijing, told reporters.
"But I love the venue. It's a heaven for paddlers."
Few made it down without any errors. While speed is of the essence it is also vital to be smooth as every touch of one of the blue or red poles means a two-second penalty.
Twice Olympic gold medalist Estanguet, who booked his place in the top 12 for Tuesday with the first of his two attempts on Sunday said the course was tough.
"Usually at this level you can find good speed and precision but this one it's hard to find the best balance," he said.
"It's a little bit strange."
Hundreds of Union Jack flags fluttered in the temporary stands that were full close to their 12,000-capacity.
The majority had probably not witnessed canoe or kayak slalom (canoe slalom has a one blade paddle and kayak a two-blade paddle) before but with the help of the commentary they soon knew their eddy's from their staggers.
They roared in unison too when home favorite David Florence, who narrowly missed gold in Beijing when he brushed the last gate with his paddle, bombed down in his second run after finishing 13th in his first.
Apart from a heart-stopping moment near the end when he came to a virtual standstill in a swirling whirlpool of water, ducking his head desperately to avoid a pole which could have wrecked his hopes, he qualified in fifth place.
It is going to get wet and wild over the next few days with a torrent of medals up for grabs and a chance of British gold.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)