The company which stages the Great North Swim has insisted that the safety of participants is an absolute priority after one man died and another suffered a heart attack at last weekend’s event.
Nova International, the company founded by Brendan Foster, the Olympic athlete, which stages televised mass participation sport events, said it was impractical to ask thousands of amateur swimmers to pass a health test before competing.
Swimmers would be put off entering if they had to produce a “doctor’s note” before taking part in the annual one-mile swim on Lake Windermere in Cumbria, the company argued.
A 46 year-old man collapsed and died after getting in to difficulties during the charity swim at the Lake District beauty spot. Support staff, who travel alongside the swimmers in canoes, raised the alarm.
On-shore resuscitation was attempted and the man, from the Cumbria area, was transferred to hospital by air ambulance where he was later pronounced dead.
A second swimmer, in his 60s, suffered a heart attack and was treated by an air ambulance doctor on the site before being airlifted to hospital. He is now in a stable condition.
The fatality raised questions over the safety of amateur participants who take part in mass sporting events. Four men died during the 2005 Great North Run, also staged by BBC athletics commentator Foster’s company. That event took place in unusually warm conditions.
Nova delivered the biggest swim event seen in the UK at Windermere, a major attraction to sponsors British Gas and broadcasters, with 10,000 competitors, setting off in groups of 300 swimmers every 30 minutes.
Nova advertises the Swim as an “event for swimmers of all abilities.” Contestants, who enter at their own risk, are told: “You must be able to complete a mile confidently before taking part in this event. However, if you get into difficulty during your swim, help will be at hand.”
David Hart, communications director at Nova International, said: “We have a comprehensive safety plan for all our events with the medical authorities and the police. Safety is our number one priority.”
But Nova is not responsible for vetting swimmers for pre-existing health conditions. “If we told thousands of participants to get a doctor’s note many wouldn’t be motivated to get one. Doctors would probably err on the side of caution. That would result in more people leading a sedentary lifestyle and reduced life expectancy.”
Nova argued that the Great North Swim was “Britain’s biggest swim event, staged with a spectacular backdrop enjoyed by the vast majority of people.”
Mr Hart said: “You can’t reduce the risk to zero at sporting events like the Swim and Great North Run. It is the law of averages that someone might pass away. People who fall ill are treated more promptly than if they were in a road traffic accident.”
Mr Hart was backed by Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society. She said: “All swim event organisers are aware of the need to have really robust health and safety procedures, but if you get 10,000 people in one place – whether at a festival, football stadium or to take part in a sports event – you can not exclude the possibility someone will have a heart attack.”
She added: “In general, swimming is very good for people’s health and outdoor swimming appeals to a whole host of people who will never go to a pool regularly enough to experience health and fitness benefits. People should be able to swim wild and attend events at their own risk.”
Great North Swim organisers held a minute's silence for the man who died before the final race of the three-day event.