Is Paris ready to host the 2024 Summer Olympics?

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It is now less than fifty days before the 2024 Summer Olympics gets underway in Paris and expectation is, as expected, now really starting to rise. The greatest multi-sport event on the planet taking place in one of the world’s most historic, beautiful and famous cities: what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, a whole host of problems that have forced the organising committee (Paris 2024) to seriously reconsider many of their key proposals and ideas. With so little time now remaining until the opening ceremony and so much information still up in the air about the security of the games, their environmental impact and the safety of some venues, Paris 2024 has a lot to consider in the few weeks it has left to prepare.

The most obvious facet of staging the Olympics are the venues themselves. While they have caused their fair share of problems that I will expand upon later, Paris 2024 has done a remarkably good job with them. The city, host of some of the largest sports events on an annual basis, naturally has many world class sporting venues which will be put to good use throughout the games. Le Golf National, host of the 2018 Ryder Cup, will be the venue for the golf while the Stade Roland-Garros, home of the French Open, will host the tennis and the boxing. It is this multi-use of stadiums that I believe Paris 2024 has done exceptionally well, using venues for multiple sports at different times throughout the games. The Grand Palais will host the fencing and taekwondo, for example, while the Grand Palais Éphémère will host the judo and wrestling. The organisers have not only used as many existing venues as possible but have put them to use throughout the tournament for multiple sports, a move that requires fewer venues and therefore a lower cost and impact overall. 

Perhaps the aspect Paris 2024 have been trying to push the most, however, is their use of famous Parisian landmarks as venues, in keeping with the motto of the event “games wide open.” Celebrated structures like Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower will provide the backdrop for archery and beach volleyball respectively while the Place de la Concorde will be transformed into an urban sports hub and it will be here that the skateboarding, breaking, BMX freestyle and 3×3 basketball will be contested. While these events aren’t exactly “wide open” since one still needs a ticket to access them, the landmarks certainly raise their profile and should hopefully draw in a larger television audience. 

The landmarks certainly raise their profile and should hopefully draw in a larger television audience

With this notion of “games wide open”, however, there comes a large security problem and this is something the organising committee has struggled to deal with. With huge crowds, easy access and the eyes of the world on the event, the Olympics presents an unparalleled chance for terrorists or malicious entities to attack and cause an enormous amount of damage. For Paris 2024 this is especially true since the hugely “open” nature of the games means, despite an unprecedented increase in security with over 40,000 police officers deployed, there is still a real threat of violence without proper precaution. The organising committee has taken substantial steps to limit this as a possibility, but much of this has come at the detriment of the games themselves.

The opening ceremony, with its premise of allowing hundreds of thousands of members of the public to watch from the riverbanks of the Seine for free, has had to be massively scaled back as organisers realised they simply could not control such a large, unticketed crowd, especially with the world’s best athletes so close on the river. The spectator capacity was therefore cut in half from about 600,000 to 300,000 and tickets (while free) were introduced for those wanting to attend, meaning the original idea of citizens simply coming to the riverbank to watch has been scuppered. Indeed, the plan to hold the opening ceremony on the Seine is so beset by security concerns that President Macron has not ruled out scrapping the idea altogether and hosting it in a stadium, as is usual, which would be a real blow to the message of the event as a games for everyone. 

Security, however, must come first and in the uncertain political landscape of today’s world, there is a real threat to an event of the Olympics’ magnitude. Only in May this year, French police discovered and foiled a planned terrorist attack on the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne, one of the stadia that will host the football competition, demonstrating that their security precautions are certainly warranted. With the Internation Olympic Committee (IOC) fielding a wide range of allegations regarding the participation of Russia, Belarusian, Palestinian and Israeli athletes in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza war, the political uncertainty surrounding the games has led to much tighter security than ever before. The French authorities seem to be doing an effective job at dealing with threats, as demonstrated by their swift responses to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard plot or the threats surrounding the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. We can only hope that this decisive action carries over to the Olympics themselves which, as a much larger and more politically charged event, will no doubt be the subject of more attempted attacks over the coming months. 

The political uncertainty surrounding the games has led to much tighter security than ever before

An event as large as the Olympics, with all the infrastructure that needs to be built for athletes, officials and spectators, is also going to have a large environmental impact and while the IOC has tried to mitigate these with its “sustainability essentials” and the Olympic Forest in the Sahel, there are inevitably going to be concerns about the impact of the games on the climate that the IOC cannot escape from. In Teahupo’o, Tahiti, host of the surfing competition, much anger has been raised by officials and locals alike by plans to build a nine-ton aluminium judging tower on the coral reef. Paris 2024 maintains this is necessary to ensure premium “refereeing, broadcast coverage and securing the water surface, given the specific characteristics of the site” and that all other options, such as drones or the temporary wooden platform built whenever Teahupo’o hosts other surfing events, have been “studied and ruled out.” Both local and international campaigners have opposed this decision since it could cause mass damage to the biodiverse coral reefs that make the area such a surfing hotspot in the first place. Indeed, about 257,000 people have signed a petition calling on the IOC to stop construction but the sports body has repeatedly stated there is no other option to ensure the smooth running of the event. The tower will be dismantled at the end of the competition but it could do irreparable damage to the area and the health of the coral reefs and as such raises the issue of the IOC’s responsibility not only to organise the games but to ensure their beneficial legacy for all host sites, something they may not be guaranteeing on Tahiti.

There are not only concerns regarding the games’ impact on the environment, however, but the environment’s impact on the games. Perhaps the most notable controversy of all to come out of Paris 2024 has been the safety of the Seine River. Both the marathon swimming and the aquatic section of the triathlon are being conducted in the river itself. This is a controversial plan to say the least since the river has time and time again been deemed unsafe – it is, like many rivers that flow through major cities, essentially part of the sewer system and as such is contaminated with huge amounts of unhealthy waste. Those who swim in it risk unpleasant illnesses like norovirus and thus there is a great deal of concern about the feasibility of using such a waterway in competition. In a report published earlier this year, the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the ocean and other bodies of water, found that athletes “will be swimming in polluted water and taking significant risks to their health” if they compete in the river, despite the extensive (and expensive, costing around €1.4 billion) work Paris 2024 has done to mitigate bacteria concentration which include redesigning parts of the Parisian sewer system and integrating colossal overflow tanks. Despite this, alarming levels of E. coli have still caused large problems for the organising committee, with a planned trial triathlon being cancelled for fear of the participants safety. With so little time before the Olympics, it seems like an impossible task to clean the river to such a high standard and, as such, fears about the event’s feasibility are certainly warranted.

Those who swim in the Seine risk unpleasant illnesses like norovirus and this there is a great deal of concern about the feasibility of using such a waterway in the competition

Paris 2024 have remained upbeat about the whole situation, however, claiming excess rainfall is the cause of much of their problems and that the two-week time span of the games leaves them ample time to delay the triathlon and marathon swimming if heavy rain needs to be avoided. Without a back-up plan (there is simply no other place in Paris that could host such an event), Paris 2024 is limited on options if the water quality simply does not improve. “There is a final decision where we could not swim … it’s what we want to avoid, of course” remarked Tony Estanguet, president of Paris 2024. The cancellation of such an iconic event due to high bacteria levels would not only be a real blow to the games as a whole but also to their overall legacy as the overarching plan is to make the Seine a safe place for all to swim in once the Olympics are over. This is still achievable in the long run of course but it would not be an auspicious start if the events that sparked this transformation in the first place had to be cancelled. Ultimately, the river is a natural body of water that is subject to the whims of nature and there is nothing Paris 2024 can concretely do to ensure the total safety of all participants. Their window for action on this front is closing rapidly though and with the Seine already the highest profile problem they have faced, they simply have to hope that Mother Nature will hold back for the fortnight of the games and bring sunny, safe weather. 

The Olympics are an enormous undertaking for any city and it is therefore obvious that problems will arise. Paris 2024 has dealt effectively with many of these but many still rear their ugly head as well and could cause a lasting negative legacy. The health and security of all involved must be ensured, as must the games’ ecological sustainability, and if that means cancelling various aspects of the games then so be it. The IOC will not want to do this of course, so it is up to them to find a solution that works for everyone so that the Olympics can maintain their legacy as the greatest sports event in the world.

Image: Pierre Blaché via Wikimedia Commons

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