Shark shock for Olympic dreamers

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The Independent Online

The local organising committee in Sydney has not yet called upon the services of Roy Scheider or Richard Dreyfuss, but fears are emerging from down under that the inaugural Olympic triathlon races could turn intoJaws V. A recent spate of sharkattacks and sightings aroundSydney has prompted one Olympic adviser to recommend the use ofdeterrents when the women's triathlon gets under way with a 1,500m swim across Farm Cove, next to the Sydney Opera House, on the opening day of competition, 16 September - and when the men's event follows 24 hours later.

Dr John Paxton, a shark expert at the Australian Museum, last week urged the organising committee to ensure that boats with outboard motors cruise around during the Olympic races and during a World Cup event being staged to test the course on 16 April. An outboard motor, he explained, creates an electric field which to a shark sounds like a ghetto blaster at full volume.

Dr Paxton's request came in the wake of a police warning to users of Sydney's waterways after a 2m shark rammed a school sculling boat. "We will do whatever is required," David Hannen, the Olympic triathlon competition manager, pledged. "We will not let any athletes come here in fear of their lives."

According to Chris McCormack, the Australian who won the 1997 world title, European triathletes competing in the Canberra international race last week were "seriously worried" about the threat of shark attacks. That amused Greg Bennett, another Australian triathlete, who lives in Sydney. "I'm laughing because for me it's all a psychological battle," he said. "I'm all for anything that might make the others a bit worried about Sydney. I've lived in the harbour my whole life and I've seen plenty of sharks but I'm not worried about them."

Neither is Dr Paxton. He points out that the most recent fatal shark attack in Sydney Harbour dates back to 1963, and places the risk of a little bite being added to the Olympic triathlons as "somewhere between virtually nil and very low". Dr Paxton, nevertheless, might have chosen a more fortunately-named collaborator for the report he co-authored on the possible dangers. After all, when it comes to fishing food from the deep, is it not John West who insists on the best?

Dermal warfare

Let us hope that none of the world's triathletes are snatched from the jaws of victory in Sydney Harbour in September. For the big fish of the swimming world, though, the competition in the Sydney International Aquatic Centre promises to be a veritable sharkfest. Despite opposition from the Australian Olympic Committee, Speedo are speeding ahead with production of their revolutionary "sharkskin" swimming suits - with the official approval of Fina, the world governing body of swimming.

The Fastskin suit has been specifically designed to mimic the hydrodynamic properties of shark skin, featuring tiny ridge patterns similar to the saw-tooth "dermal denticles" which enable water to flow smoothly over a shark's skin. In tests, the suit has registered a three per cent improvement in performances, which is good news for Australia and the 42 other national teams who are contracted to wear Speedo gear in Sydney. Britain is not one of them, even though the suit was developed with British expertise. It was designed with the help of scientists from the Natural History Museum in London.

Holm improvement

The unveiling of the Fastskin suit was not the only thing that made a big splash at the recent World Short-course Championships in Athens. Theresa Alshammar emerged as the star of the show, with her world-record feats in the 50m and 100m freestyle. She emerged as something of a water-babe, too, with the legend "DIVA" and a copyright sign tattooed on her buttocks.

Alshammar, in fact, was voted Sweden's Most Erotic Woman last year. The 22-year-old has some way to go, though, before she eclipses Eleanor Holm as the all-time siren of world swimming. En route to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Holm outraged United States team officials by staying up all night drinking on the nine-day voyage on board the SS Manhattan. The reigning 100m backstroke champion and unbeaten for seven years, she was dropped from the team after attending an all-day champagne party in Cherbourg, collapsing in what the ship's doctor described as "a state close to a coma" and being diagnosed as suffering from acute alcoholism.

She still made a big impression in Berlin, wining and dining with the Nazi élite. "I enjoyed the parties, the Heil Hitlers, the uniforms and the flags," she said. "Goering was fun. So was the one with the club foot [Goebbels]." Holm later found a more sober role in life - as Jane in the film Tarzan's Revenge.

Crocodile tears

And Finally... A fishy tale from the 1988 Olympics. It was concocted by a member of the press corps in Seoul after the American golden boy Matt Biondi was beaten in the 100m butterfly final by Anthony Nesty of Surinam. On the way back to the press village, he told colleagues that the story stood little chance of being published in his tabloid. "It needs something a bit more meaty in it," he said, and proceeded to fabricate a yarn about Nesty learning to swim as a five-year-old in crocodile-infested waters.

The article duly appeared the following day and the Hans Christian Andersen was feeling rather pleased with himself - until a university professor telephoned his office to point out that Surinam happens to be a crocodile-free country.

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