Paris Olympics fears over dirty water after mass vomiting and diarrhoea at World Triathlon

Triathletes - Paris Olympics fears over dirty water after mass vomiting and diarrhoea at World Triathlon
As many as 57 competitors were ill after the 2023 World Series triathlon in Sunderland last week - Getty Images/George Wood

Paris 2024 swimmers could be next to face mass sicknesses due to contaminated waters, specialists have warned, as governing bodies face pressure to review protocols.

Leading public health specialists and competitors raised the alarm over testing internationally after 57 competitors fell ill with diarrhoea and vomiting after a triathlon in Sunderland.

Concerns over water qualities for both triathletes and marathon swimmers at the Olympics next year are now being raised. Heavy rain in Paris led to an Open Water Swimming World Cup event being aborted over the weekend because “the water quality in the Seine has remained below acceptable standards for safeguarding swimmers’ health”, the French Swimming Federation said on Sunday.

Officials played down the risk to the Games next year, with Paris spending huge sums on water-management projects to reduce pollution caused by storms.

In the wake of record numbers of sickness the previous week in Sunderland, however, campaigners have called for improved coordination between government agencies and sporting bodies for open water events.

British Triathlon found little sign of E.Coli in the waters off Roker Beach, yet Environment Agency testing nearby apparently showed levels at 39 times higher than expected.

Dr John Ashton, the former director of public health for the north west, and athletes say British and World Triathlon should both be reviewing safeguards.

“The situation we have in Sunderland is a symptom of what’s going on on a daily basis in our seas,” said Ashton. “Those sick were 57 canaries in the coal mine.”

Evidence shared with the Telegraph showed there is “no definitive answer to where the pollution came from” that caused widespread sickness in Sunderland.

However, the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage believe “it is likely that it was from a sewage discharge and not agricultural”.  The Environment Agency does not appear to be duty-bound to inform major sporting events if waters are unsafe.

Tim Heming, a triathlete and writer, said: “One water test has come up as clearly worrying and sub-standard, and yet the water tests that British Triathlon, the race organisers have done, have passed. There’s a disconnect there and it certainly needs to be looked at.”

Heming said there were serious questions to be answered from a current investigation by British Triathlon, adding: “Is what they’re currently doing fit for purpose? That doesn’t just hold for this race in Sunderland.”

Although the level of sickness in Sunderland is unprecedented for a major event in the UK, the situation is not new, Heming explained. He added the situation is a “concern” for international federations ahead of the Olympics.

The World Triathlon Championship Series in Sunderland had been given the go ahead a week before the Paris event. Among those later recording sickness and diarrhoea was Australian triathlete Jacob Birtwhistle, who described the event as “swimming in s---“, adding that it should have been cancelled.

Triathlon in Sunderland
Australian triathlete Jacob Birtwhistle described the Sunderland event as “swimming in s---“, adding that it should have been cancelled - PA/Will Matthews

The UK Health Security Agency said it had been notified of 57 cases of diarrhoea and vomiting involving people who took part and was working with British Triathlon “to encourage anyone who participated and has or had symptoms after the event to contact the organisers”.

However, after concerns were raised about Environment Agency water  quality results from July 26, British Triathlon said the water tested was outside the swim area for the event held on 29 July.

Tim Nunn, of Surfers Against Sewage, said it can be notoriously difficult to give seas the all-clear for swimming.

“The Environment Agency’s results would have been spot on but it’s obviously very difficult to assess exactly where they monitor it,” he said.

“We always say that you should stay out of the water from a surfing and swimming point of view for 24 to 48 hours in that local vicinity because you can’t really track where that high E. Coli levels within the sewage actually goes. It becomes a very grey area. British Triathlon may well say that it was safe where they are, but it’s very difficult for them to actually categorically say that.”

The health alert comes as water companies in the UK face mounting criticism over raw sewage releases in rivers and near beaches.

The race off Sunderland’s Roker Beach served as the British leg of the 2023 World Series, coinciding with qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

There were around 2,000 competitors last weekend and Birtwhistle was among a series of athletes to go public with concerns. “Have been feeling pretty rubbish since the race, but I guess that’s what happens when you swim in s---,” he wrote on Instagram.

Tessa Wardley, director of communications and advocacy at the Rivers Trust, told Telegraph Sport “it is desperately embarrassing for us as a nation when we cannot host major sporting events in our water bodies for fear of mass illness”.

She added in a statement: “Our waterways are receiving pollution from poorly performing sewage systems on a daily basis, as well as following high rainfall from storm overflows and poorly controlled farm animal waste. This is impacting on people’s health as well as the environment; it must stop and it needs to be dealt with effectively, and for the long term.”