‘National disgrace’: E coli bacteria in Thames sparks warning before Boat Race

The coach of Oxford’s crew taking part in the Boat Race described the pollution in London’s River Thames as a “national disgrace.”

Testing by a campaign group has found high levels of E coli along a section of the Thames in southwest London that will be used for the historic race on Saturday.

Crew members have been warned about the risks of entering the water and advised to use a “cleansing station” at the finish area. The pollution has also cast doubt on the post-race tradition of throwing the winning cox into the water.

A bird sits atop a “Danger” sign on the River Thames. Photo: Reuters
It comes as figures released by the Environment Agency showed the level of sewage spills into England’s rivers and seas by water companies more than doubled in 2023 compared to 2022.

There has been no suggestion that the Boat Race between storied universities Oxford and Cambridge that dates to 1829 will not go ahead. The women’s race will precede the men’s event along the same 6.8km (4.2-mile) section of the Thames.

But Oxford coach Sean Bowden has lamented the state of the water the crews will be competing on.

It’s a national disgrace, isn’t it? … would you want to put your kids out in that?

Sean Bowden, Oxford coach

“It’s a national disgrace, isn’t it?” Bowden posed.

“It would be terrific if the Boat Race drew attention to it. We are very keen to play a part, and we recognise we have a role and a responsibility to it.

“Why,” he added in British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, “would you want to put your kids out in that?”

Members of the Oxford rowing team practise ahead of The Gemini Boat Race. Photo: AFP

Invariably, the focus has turned to whether the winning crew will dunk its cox into the Thames at the end of the race.

E coli bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most strains are harmless, cause relatively brief diarrhoea and most people recover without much incident, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But small doses of some strains – including just a mouthful of contaminated water – can cause a range of conditions, including urinary tract infection, cystitis, intestinal infection and vomiting, with the worst cases leading to life-threatening blood poisoning.

Members of the Cambridge rowing team practise in the Thames ahead of The Gemini Boat Race. Photo: AFP

“If there’s a health and safety problem, I don’t think we’ll be throwing him in because we don’t want to risk that,” said Harry Glenister, who has rowed for Britain and will compete for Oxford.

“It’s just too much of a risk. We support whatever the Boat Race is saying about the conditions in the water. We just hope we’ll win, and then we’ll decide.”

Cambridge has won four of the last five men’s races and leads the rivalry 86-81.

Cambridge has won six straight in the women’s race.

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