Triathlon New Zealand staff are scratching their heads after two Kiwi athletes fell sick following a World Championship Series race in Sunderland late last month.
Close to 60 athletes became sick after competing on a stretch of coastline, UK health officials confirmed.
Three days before the swim off Sunderland’s Roker Beach, readings showed 3900 E. coli colonies per 100 millilitres - more than 39 times higher than typical readings the previous month. The bacterial infection can cause stomach pain and bloody diarrhoea.
The Guardian reported Great Britain’s triathlon governing body proceeded with the event as the agency sampling results were not published until after the event and the race was taking place in a different spot to where the water was tested.
The coastline “has been at the centre of a long-running battle over sewage discharges between campaigners and the government concerning regulatory failures”, the Guardian reported.
Triathlon New Zealand CEO Pete de Wet said he’s taking this issue very seriously and has escalated concerns with the World Triathlon governing body.
“To be honest with you, we’re all kind of scratching our heads because there are some fairly rigorous protocols around water testing for international events,” de Wet told the Herald.
New Zealand had seven competitors in the race (four males and three females), two of whom fell ill after the race with vomiting and diarrhoea. De Wet didn’t find out about the issues until a couple of days later.
Triathlon NZ said Dylan McCullough and Saxon Morgan were unwell overnight post the individual race and were also sharing a room, however, were separated once they began showing symptoms.
Though the illness did not escalate to cause any serious medical concerns, McCullough was forced to withdraw from the mixed-relay event the following day.
De Wet said British Triathlon – the federation in charge of the event – had launched an investigation of the infection upsurge and the water testing process.
“I know the various testing protocols were done,” said de Wet. “I guess the key thing to try to establish – and for me, I’m not even looking for an apology, to be fair – is just to ensure that if there are any lessons learned from this event, that we apply those lessons going forward.”
The CEO is looking ahead to next week’s event in Paris on the River Seine, where another swimming event was cancelled overnight due to the condition of the water.
Heavy rain led to the event being cancelled, which was a swimming test for the Olympic Games next year. Organisers have insisted the waterway will be better prepared in 2024.
“The water quality in the Seine has remained below acceptable standards for safeguarding swimmers’ health,” the French Swimming Federation said, according to the Guardian.
It hasn’t yet affected the World Triathlon Olympic Games test event being held in Paris from August 17-18, which Kiwi athletes will take part in.
De Wet wants to avoid situations where Triathlon NZ would be “potentially compromising the health of our athletes”.
“Events like this really do help us sharpen the focus on where some of the issues may be, as long as we’re taking into account what we’ve learned from these issues and we make sure we implement rigorous protocols going forward to try to prevent them.”
If the Siene is not swimmable next week, organisers will switch the event from a triathlon to a duathlon, where athletes complete the run and bike legs only.
De Wet said, “That wouldn’t affect the ability for the athletes to still score points and work towards Olympic qualifications.
“There’s no mechanism in our policy that says if a race is downgraded from a triathlon to a duathlon, that affects the athletes adversely.
“We would still consider that race as an international race and part of the calendar that works towards their Olympic qualification.”
He is confident the Olympic Committee will get their act together for at least this time next year.
“With the Olympics coming up, the French government and the Olympic Committee have been working really hard to ensure that the river is good for swimming,” de Wet said. “And certainly all indications have led to the fact that it should be.
“I’m confident because it’s a massive showcase, and they’re not going to want to get it wrong.”