April 15, 2024

On a bright, unexpectedly warm afternoon, it would have been easy to assume the crowds that gathered by the Thames yesterday for the 169th Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race were a signal that all remains rosy in the world of rowing and rivercraft.

Couples of all ages stood in the sunshine sipping pints and proseccos, groups waved dark-blue Oxford and light-blue Cambridge flags, and families posed for selfies. All appeared content about the prospects of watching another engrossing competition between the two old rivals – a battle that was eventually won by Cambridge in both the men and women’s races.

But it was not the state of what was floating on top of the Thames that was on the minds of a great many onlookers. What lay beneath was their principal concern. Recently announced studies have indicated the river is now badly polluted with bacteria. As a result, both the Oxford and Cambridge teams were warned not to enter the water and to cover up open wounds they might have on their arms and legs.

This was particularly unwelcome news for one spectator – former Oxford rower Richard Hull, who had come to watch his son take part in the men’s reserve competition.

Richard, a former rower, and Diana Hull who came to see their son compete. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

“I had no worries about contamination when I took part in the Boat Race in 1990. But now everything has changed. The river has become badly polluted. The crews are getting covered with water that gets splashed into the boat, so how you actually just stay healthy during a race is beyond me.”

Joanna Bates, a visitor from Knutsford, was also anxious. “The issue of the river is a worry but it is not just the Thames that is affected. Nearly all our rivers are in trouble.” Gary Hughes, from Bayswater, agreed. “That water – it’s filthy, disgusting. You wouldn’t put your dog in it.”

After the race, the Oxford cox, William Denegri, revealed that three team members had had stomach bugs during the week. He said: “Whether that’s related to E coli in the river, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not helped our campaign.”

The discovery that the Thames is currently badly polluted with bacteria was provided by the campaign group River Action which said last week that it had found “alarmingly high levels of dangerous E coli bacteria” along the stretch of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake where the race takes place.

Thanks to the vast amounts of sewage now being dumped in the Thames, prevalence of the bug was 10 times higher than what is considered to be safe. As a result, crews from both boats were warned not to take a dive into the Thames at the end of the race lest they suffer diarrhoea, kidney failure or sepsis.

And the culprit? Thames Water, which has been found to have been releasing effluent directly into the river and its tributaries on a grand scale. One recent study indicated that the utility firm had pumped at least 72 billion litres of filth into the river since 2020, enough to fill 29,000 Olympic swimming pools.

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For its part, Thames Water, which is facing an uncertain future after shareholders refused to inject fresh equity into the ailing business, has blamed high rainfall for flushing effluent out of its drains and into waterways. The fact that Thames Water has also said it needs to increase bills by 56% to deal with its debts and improve its creaking infrastructure has not helped its image.

Last week, the company’s leadership was denounced as a disgrace by the communities secretary, Michael Gove, and accused of taking excess profits while failing to invest in badly needed infrastructure. Now the renationalisation of Thames Water has become a real prospect. The water industry was privatised by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and if Thames Water is renationalised this would confirm in many people’s minds that the whole exercise had been a very costly fiasco.

The fury that has erupted over the river and its pollution has had one other unexpected result. The Boat Race, an event normally considered by the rest of the world to be a mildly amusing, slightly eccentric piece of British entertainment, found itself being held up as a perfect example of the wounds that Britain now regularly inflicts on itself.

For the first time, Fox News, CNN and other international outlets ran stories about the race’s buildup. As Thursday’s New York Times put it: “The warning is stern: Do not enter the water. Not because of the tide. Not because of sharks. Because of the sewage.” For its part, CBS talked about London’s “sewage-infused” Thames.

The image evokes grim parallels, a point that was stressed yesterday by the rower Richard Hull. “I once rowed on the Bosphorus, and all around there was excrement and dead animals floating in the water. It was very disturbing. Is that going to happen here?”

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