The Boat Race 2024 - Changes confirmed due to 'concern' over river pollution

The Boat Race will take place on Saturday despite a worrying river pollution report
Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

The Boat Race will not end this year with a triumphant Oxford or Cambridge University team throwing their coxswain into the River Thames as concerning guidance from organisers is issued to competitors. High levels of E coli bacteria have been found in the Tideway course.

The varsity race between the universities will still go ahead on Saturday despite health concerns. Competitors will instead wash themselves down at a dedicated cleansing station once they cross the finish at Mortlake.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The new guidance comes after the River Action campaign group found an average of 2,869 E coli colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml of water in 16 tests around Hammersmith Bridge. That location is approximately halfway along the Boat Race course and is regularly the busiest place to watch with spectators crowding the banks.

The Environment Agency's inland bathing water quality standards decree that the level should be below 1,000 CFU per 100 ml. The bacteria, which is found in faeces, can cause urinary tract infections, cystitis, vomiting and even life-threatening blood poisoning.

According to River Action, the poor river quality is believed to be linked to Thames Water discharging sewage directly into the river and its tributaries. This conclusion was drawn based on publicly-available data which showed that Thames Water had discharged sewage into the Greater London area of the Thames for 1,914 hours from the start of 2024 to March 26.

The news is a blow to The Boat Race and usual festivities but is perhaps an even greater concern to the many rowers who use that stretch of the Tideway daily. The stretch from Putney to Mortlake is a hub for the sport with British Rowing reporting that 12,000 people 'participate in organised rowing sessions' on the Tideway in London in 2017.

The Boat Race 'concerned' over river quality

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In a statement to The Guardian, the Boat Race said: “Water quality is an ongoing concern for the Boat Race. We have put in place a series of precautionary measures this year to protect the health of our athletes, which includes guidance regarding the covering up of open wounds, regular handwashing, a cleansing station at the finish area and highlighting the risks of entering the water. We will also be taking on board British Rowing’s recent Poor Water Quality Guidance, issued in partnership with River Action, as we look forward to the Gemini Boat Race 2024.”

In a statement, Thames Water said: “Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us and we want to lead the way with our transparent approach to data. We remain the only company to provide live alerts for all untreated discharges and this ‘near real-time’ data is available to customers as a map on our website.

Cambridge cox James Trotman is thrown in the Tideway last year.Cambridge cox James Trotman is thrown in the Tideway last year.
Cambridge cox James Trotman is thrown in the Tideway last year.

“We have experienced higher than average long-term rainfall across London and the Thames Valley with groundwater levels exceptionally high for the time of the year. The overflows are designed to operate automatically when the sewer network is about to be overwhelmed which then releases diluted wastewater into rivers, rather than letting it back up into people’s homes.

“We are working hard to make these discharges unnecessary and have published plans to upgrade over 250 of our sites, including a £100 million upgrade of our Mogden sewage treatment works in south-west London to treat the high volumes of incoming sewage and reduce the need for overflows during wet weather.”

Henley Regatta also plagued by dirty river

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It's not the first guidance of the sort issued to rowers in the UK. At Henley Royal Regatta, the pinnacle of the summer rowing calendar, similar health concerns were shared with River Action advising that crews ditch the cox-throw tradition.

Not all followed that advice and shortly after the conclusion of the 2023 event, Thames Water was fined £3 million for polluting rivers with River Action having warned of high E. coli bacteria levels before Henley Regatta.

Sir Steve Redgrave shared his concern about the water quality at the famous event. He said: "At Henley Royal Regatta, we are deeply concerned about the impact that sewage pollution is having on our beautiful river. I canoe from my home town of Marlow at Longridge. Sometimes you can see from the colour of the water that there has been a discharge - it's not somewhere I would ever want to fall in."

Before Henley Regatta began racing last year, local open-water swimming group Henley Mermaids had seen wet wipes, sanitary pads, sewage foam and stoma bags in the water which have led to one member vomiting three times in six years.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.