Environment: Triathlon swims against the local tide

Thousands took part in the country's first mass-participation triathlon in London's Docklands yesterday. It should have been an exciting day for locals, but many stayed at home in protest. Clare Garner found out why.
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The Independent Online
It is not easy at the best of times for parents to convince their children of the dangers of having a dip in the docks. But when the authorities allow 3,000 competitors in the inaugural London Triathlon to swim there, it becomes almost impossible.

Residents of the Isle of Dogs felt that the 1,500 metre swim in West India Dock sent out all the wrong signals about the health risks attached to swimming in dock water, including the risk of contracting Weil's disease, which is caused by a bacterium secreted in the urine of rats.

Furthermore, the race appeared to fly in the face of previous advice from the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). In May, the LDDC, which sponsored the triathlon, issued a letter from the harbour master warning residents that there were indications of high algae growth in the docks and that algae "can be toxic to humans and, unless precautions are taken can have serious consequences".

The letter continued: "Ingestion of algae laden water can lead to liver damage. There have also been failures (in the tests) due to the presence of bacteria, faecal enterococci and coliforms. This is not safe with all the dock water being pumped from the River Thames together with bacteria from nearby sewage works ... there's an ever present risk."

Rita Bensley, chairwoman of the Association of Island Communities, said local residents were "really disgusted" that the LDDC had given the swim the go-ahead. "All adults spend their life warning their children not to swim in the docks," she said. "The LDDC has spent a small fortune issuing leaflets and creating local by-laws which state quite clearly we're not allowed to swim in the docks. When youngsters see adults being allowed to swim in there under sponsored schemes for charity they assume they can."

Craig Rice, media manager for the event, insisted that the competitors, which ranged from first-timers (60 per cent) to the the British and world number one, Simon Lessing, had been under no risk.

"The LDDC wouldn't let us put this event on unless they were happy with the quality of the water. It is safe water. Safety wise, it's safe to swim in the dock."

Rather, he insisted, the problem comes when people swim in the docks unsupervised - in 1995 there were seven deaths. As well as the swimming element, competitors did a 40 kilometres cycle circuit out towards London City airport and a 10 kilometres run through the streets of Poplar.

Lessing victory, Sport page 21