Boat Race 2024 overshadowed by Thames’ E. coli levels


Both the Cambridge men’s and women’s crews took victory in the 2024 Boat Race, against a background of national outrage over the toxicity of our national rivers.

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Image by BBC

By Charlotte Tabeart

In the Boat Race 2024, Cambridge beat Oxford in both the men’s and women’s races despite being seen as the underdogs in the day's fixtures.

The Cambridge women achieved their seventh successive victory, while the Cambridge men have now won five races out of the past six.

However, this year’s Boat Race differed to previous races with growing concerns over the water quality of the Thames. This issue became clear when the rowers were advised not to enter the Thames due to the river’s uncleanliness.

The Thames’ water quality was tested before the race and high levels of E. coli were found. E. coli, which is found in faeces, presents dangers for any river-based sport with it being the cause of infections and sickness.

It is not clear if the unclean waterways affected the race. However, the Oxford cox William Denegri discussed how several of his teammates had been struck by illness in the lead up to the race.

This message was echoed by Leonard Jenkins in seven seat, in a post race interview with the BBC. He expressed concern for his teammates missing sessions due to sickness and himself being sick on the morning of the race. He connects these illnesses to the E. coli strain but this is not confirmed.

Both teams were advised to cover and clean any blisters and keep equipment and kit clean as a precaution. However many say this is not enough.

The group River Action state that the dangerous levels of waste in the Thames have been caused by years of ‘neglect’ by Thames Water. The group has been joined by British Rowing and The Rivers Trust in calling for the government to do more to keep rivers clean. In particular, doing more to enforce laws around river cleanliness and prosecute polluters.

This issue has dominated the build up to the race, not only because of the Thames’ importance in the London landscape, but because this highlights a wider issue felt across the country.

This issue has particular relevance in York with the river Ouse. The Ouse in the past year has experienced higher than average levels of flooding which has lowered the water quality. As the river has flooded, higher levels of E. coli and sewage have been found.

Yorkshire Water has previously explained that in the event of large storms, overflow from the water systems is sent into the river to prevent sewers flooding our streets.

Companies such as Yorkshire Water have pledged to invest more into keeping our waterways clean. However, this is not yet enough as recent figures have revealed that this year there has been a large increase in hospital admissions for waterborne diseases.

The Boat Race 2024, with its national platform, has foregrounded the national issue of unclean rivers, and calls for change have continued to grow in the event's aftermath.