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Organisers of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race insist the event will go ahead as planned this weekend, despite warnings over high levels of “dangerous” pollution caused by sewage in the river Thames.

Campaign group River Action said this week it had found “alarmingly high levels of dangerous E. coli bacteria” along the stretch of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake where the men’s and women’s annual rowing competition takes place.

The group said its tests had shown levels of the bug 10 times higher than what is considered acceptable, and identified sewage released directly into the river and its tributaries by local utility Thames Water as the source of the problem.

Thames Water, which is facing an uncertain future after shareholders refused to inject fresh equity into the ailing business, said that high rainfall was to blame for the increased pollution readings.

The Boat Race, the company that runs the rowing contest between the world-leading universities of Oxford and Cambridge, said water quality was “an ongoing concern” as it confirmed that the races would go ahead and expressed support for River Action’s research.

Cambridge cox Kate Crowley is thrown into the River Thames to celebrate victory in 2023
Cambridge cox Kate Crowley is thrown into the river Thames to celebrate victory in 2023 © Action Plus Sports/Alamy

The organisers said they had briefed all the teams to ensure they were “as safe as possible”. They had also introduced additional safety measures ahead of the race, including “guidance regarding the covering up of open wounds, regular handwashing, a cleansing station at the finish area and highlighting the risks of entering the water”.

British Rowing has its own guidelines for athletes when facing poor water quality. Advice includes seeking medical help if a rower accidentally swallows water.

Ahead of the famous boat race, which began with the first men’s competition in 1829, Oxford rowing coach Sean Bowden described pollution in the Thames as a “national disgrace”.

The situation has also cast doubt on whether the winning team will stick with the long-running tradition of jumping into the river after the race, which attracts about 250,000 spectators along a four-mile stretch in west London.

In a statement released by River Action, three-time Boat Race winner and double World Champion Imogen Grant said: “As a rower, the water I row on is my field of play, and the results of the E. coli testing show that rowers are putting their health at risk to do the sport they love.”

This week the UK’s Environment Agency reported a 54 per cent increase in the number of sewage spills nationwide in 2023, which it partly attributed to unusually wet weather.

Environment Agency director of water Helen Wakeham said it was “disappointing” but “not surprising”, adding: “It is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight.”  

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