Monday, 27 October 2008

Media storm on the mountains

It’s not often that my favourite sport (okay, after football, but that doesn’t really count) leads the news headlines for most of the weekend. But I must admit that live accounts of several thousand fell runners swept away by floods in the Lake District, with anything up to 1,700 of them unaccounted for overnight, did make a change from the non-story of Oleg the Oligarch. (Politicians like spending time with the rich and powerful, and sometimes they try to tap them for money? You don’t say!)

Most of the early reports about the Original Mountain Marathon on Saturday talked about 2,000 ‘charity runners’ being trapped on the mountains after reckless organisers had ignored advice to call off the event – as though this was some sort of fun run in which participants dressed as Batman had been led into mortal danger by over-enthusiastic fundraisers from the local playgroup. The reality was that both the numbers and the risks were exaggerated, the main problems were caused by flooding in the valleys closing roads and cutting off the race HQ. Most of the participants described as ‘missing’ were only aware that they had been at the centre of a media frenzy when they cam back down from the hills again the next morning.

The weather may have been a bit extreme, but the OMM is an extreme sport. It consists of navigating your own route around a course that involves an overnight camp. Entrants are screened, you’re only allowed to do it in pairs and you’re required to carry full survival kit and rations for 36 hours. Batman wouldn’t get in, no matter what charity he was seeking sponsorship for.

Of course, there is risk involved. But you train and prepare for it and as far as I know the OMM’s safety record is impeccable. No one was actually ‘lost’ on the mountains over the weekend. Everyone who camped out overnight – as they had expected (and gone equipped) to do – returned safely on the Sunday. There are more casualties in the Lake District on an average calm, summer’s weekend (not that there have been many of them this summer), when thousands of far less well-prepared walkers head into the hills, than there have ever been on an OMM event.

My extreme sports participation at the weekend was limited to a muddy ‘multi-mile marathon’ circuit around the Weald Country Park in Essex – and a trip to Barking. (‘Do you know anywhere worth visiting round here?’ ‘Have you tried the industrial estate round the corner?’ ‘Are you taking the piss?’ ‘Well you started it.’)

Arthur Smith was on the same bill as the Imagined Village (folk fusion that is as inspiring ideologically as it is musically in its sense of a multicultural modern Englishness tied in to its traditional roots). He told a story of taking a health and safety inspector to do a risk assessment of the Pamplona Bull Run for a TV programme. The OMM organisers actually have to do a risk assessment. From now on it should include a paragraph about dealing with disaster-chasing news organisations that haven’t a clue about what they’re supposed to be reporting on.

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