Hit squad will send harbour sharks scooting

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The Independent Online

In scenes more evocative of a James Bond movie than a sports event, sonar devices developed to scare off sharks will be strapped to the legs of scuba divers riding underwater scooters to protect triathletes competing in the World Cup race in Sydney Harbour this weekend.

The drastic measures have been ordered by the Sydney Olympic Games organising committee because triathletes have expressed fears about the threat from sharks in the harbour during the swimming leg of the race, an official Olympics test event.

Although several decades have passed since the last fatal shark attack in Sydney, athletes' concerns have been heightened by a spate of recent sightings in the harbour and off nearby ocean beaches. Olympics organisers insist that sharks will not pose a risk but have decided to deploy the dive team to allay the fears of overseas competitors. "Sharks, I'm not worried about sharks," said David Hanson, the Olympic triathlon event manager, yesterday. "We don't see sharks as a problem. This is just a security blanket."

And a very hi-tech blanket, too. The sonar devices, that were developed in South Africa, emit an electrical field to repel sharks. They will be attached to six divers who will shadow the athletes on motorised scooters as they work their way around the harbour course.

The 1500-metre race, that starts and finishes at the Opera House, will be the first leg of the competition, which also includes a 40-kilometre cycle ride and a 10km run through Sydney's Botanical Gardens. The event will feature 75 of the world's leading triathletes, both men and women.

The Olympic triathlons will take place in September, and a survey commissioned by the Sydney organising committee found that no shark attacks have been reported in the harbour between the months of May and November in the past 208 years.

The triathlon will make its debut at the Sydney Games; the women's race on 16 September will determine the recipients of the first medals awarded at the Games. Michellie Jones, winner of last year's Sydney triathlon, said: "We've all swum in the harbour. There's nothing to worry about."

Managers of Sydney's Olympic rowing regatta venue at Penrith are faced with an embarrassing weed infestation, and could be forced to dredge the course before the Games begin. Competitors complained of snagging and dragging weed at the Australian kayaking championships last month. The weed infestation "is one of the most significant risks to the success of the Games", said the chief executive of Rowing Australia Inc, Darren Peters. "We've been getting calls every day... particularly after thecanoeing blow-up," he said.