The whitewater rapids of canoe slalom have their origins in mountain streams. Today the sport’s Olympic venues are artificial rivers, specially designed to provide world-class rapids whatever the geography of the host city. Rio’s course, like London’s, is reconfigurable; its features are controlled by the placement of Lego-like plastic blocks.
A key part of the course’s design process was building a small-scale physical model of the course. To maintain the dynamics of the rapids at a smaller physical scale, engineers used a concept called similitude. Surface waves like rapids are a function of the flow’s inertia and the effects of gravity, a ratio that’s captured in the dimensionless Froude number. To match the small-scale model to the real flow, engineers scaled the features of the real course down such that the Froude number stayed the same between the model and the full-scale course. As seen in the animations above, this meant that the model had the same general flow features as the final course, letting engineers and designers test and fine-tune features before construction. Learn more about the model and its construction in these two videos. (Image credits: kayaker – Getty Images; model comparisons – J. Pollert, source)