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Official Harbors No Fear of Sharks

Triathlon: Response to concerns about an attack during the event is, essentially, no worries, mate.

June 24, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How's this for a nightmare?

The world's best jump into Sydney Harbor for the swimming leg of the Olympic triathlon.

Then--cue that thumping music from the movie "Jaws"--a shark, gliding below in the salty water, shoots straight up like a missile and takes a big bite out of some world-class flesh.

Oh, the horror!

Michael Knight laughs. Loudly. The Australian minister in charge of putting on the Sydney Games said he's not sure what's behind the recent spate of scare stories in newspapers worldwide involving the triathlon.

But as psychological ploys go, he said, it has its merits.

"The Australian athletes are always, I think, happy to encourage their competitors to be anxious about sharks," Knight said. "It's certainly not a subject that worries the Australian competitors and if some of their competitors are put off by the thought, I don't think our men and women triathletes will be losing undue sleep over it.

Laughing some more, Knight added for emphasis: "I wouldn't say they're encouraging the view. But they wouldn't lose any sleep over it."

The scare stories surfaced again in April, just before a test event for the Games held on the Olympic course. The 1.5-kilometer swimming leg is in Sydney Harbor. On land, the 40K bike course and 10K run veer around the famed Opera House and downtown parks.

News reports said unidentified "European competitors" were concerned about the swim. One quoted Chris McCormack, Australia's 1997 world triathlon champion, as saying, "The Europeans were freaking out because in Europe they swim in freshwater bays. They take a look at the Olympic course map and see that it is in the sea, in open harbor and think sharks and then just panic."

Organizers of the Sydney Olympics, meantime, commissioned studies that said the risk of an attack in September during the Games was "virtually nil."

The last recorded fatal shark attack in the harbor was in 1963.

No shark attacks have been reported in the harbor between the months of May and November for 208 years, according to reports.

Officials also pointed out to those willing to listen to reason that there was more danger during the swim leg of getting conked on the head by another swimmer's arm or leg.

Nonetheless, during the April event, organizers took the precaution of sending scuba divers into the harbor with special anti-shark sonar devices used by abalone divers on Australia's south coast.

No bites were reported at the April test. An Australian, Peter Robertson, won the men's event. Michelle Jones won the women's event; she too is Australian.

No bites, Knight said, are expected come September. Just in case, however, he said, the divers will go down again with the sonar units.

"Everyone," Knight said, "will be completely safe."

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