Extreme star grabs jumbo-sized win

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Mike Dawson and Great Britain’s Beth Morgan get a lift from a friendly local after winning the men’s and women’s divisions of the Malabar River Festival in India. Photo by Neil D’souza

New Zealand kayaker Mike Dawson’s latest extreme race win came with a decent dollop of controversy… around 4 tonnes of it, in fact.

The 2012 Olympian and whitewater star took home US$4500 ($6700) after winning the Rapid Raja crown at the Malabar River Festival in India, heading off two world extreme champions in fellow Kiwi Sam Sutton and Joe Morley (Great Britain).  Dawson dominated the event, winning three of the four disciplines contested – the slalom, boatercross and downriver time trial – in the stunning Kerala National Park in southern India.

The controversy came after he’d headed back to his European base, however.  Part of the festival tradition sees the male and female winners paraded through the Thusharagiri district on the back of an elephant, which drew the ire of a local animal welfare group.

“Riding an elephant was definitely a novelty and a first for me in all my years kayaking,” Dawson, who joined Britain’s Beth Morgan astride the pachyderm, said.  “It was a pretty incredible experience after a fantastic week and, as far as I could tell, the elephant was treated with the utmost respect and care, so it was a bit bemusing to get back to Europe and hear about the drama it had caused.”

The Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force (HATF) sent a complaint to the Indian Prime Minister and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AMBI) citing misuse of a captive elephant, alleging organisers had failed to get proper permission and registration from the AMBI.

However, district official Prasanth Nair rubbished the allegations, saying the HATF complaint was merely a publicity gimmick.

“Writing pompous letters to the Prime Minister and the President for sorting out a local issue without even checking the facts shows the intention,” he told The Hindu newspaper. “It’s quite sad that actual cruelty to animals goes unnoticed and unattended while such gimmicks get good attention.”

Controversy aside, Dawson’s first trip to India came just a month after winning the Extremsportveko title in Norway, which earned him a place at the year-ending White Water Grand Prix.

“I had a great time competing against the best paddlers in the world in such an amazing location and it was such a buzz to race the likes of Sam and Joe and share the podium with them.  There aren’t many events we go to where the culture and experience of being there are just as huge as the race.”

Dawson will now set his extreme ambitions on hold for the next two months while he tries to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, with the last two canoe slalom world cups of the season starting next week.

He’s definitely keen to return to India again, schedule allowing, however.
“I’ll be checking out the warrant and rego on any elephants I climb aboard though,” he quipped.  “A huge component of the festival is celebrating the incredible environment we’re paddling in and that definitely includes respecting the local wildlife, big or small.”

Kiwi kayaker Mike Dawson heads through a technical section during the Malabar River Festival in India this week. Photo by Chethan Karnath.
Kiwi kayaker Mike Dawson heads through a technical section during the Malabar River Festival in India this week. Photo by Chethan Karnath.
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