Paris Olympic Games: Preparations and concerns

Beginning on July 26, the French capital will take on a distinctly gold medal-like shine when it hosts the 33rd Summer Olympic Games. One month before the event, the question on many minds is: will Paris be ready to host the event? 

Rough Draft contributor Martine Tartour explores from the ground in Paris. 

First of all, I have to tell you that I talk to friends in Paris every day, and I’ve heard nothing but hostility REGARDING the organization of the Olympic Games. 

Imagine what’s in store for us. On July 7th, 3 weeks before the Opening Ceremony, President Emmanuel Macron will have to choose a new Prime Minister, since he dissolved the National Assembly after the extreme right party, the Renouveau National, scored a historic victory in the European elections. It’s not certain that he’ll have time to take a dip in the Seine on June 23 as he had promised. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, maintains that she will be diving into the river that day. She wants to ensure that the triathlon events can be held there.

But in April, an analysis by the NGO Surfrider Foundation revealed the presence of dangerous bacteria in the river in addition to rats, catfish, and pike. Not only that, Parisians are now organizing a “flash mob” on that special day to spite the mayor. In an act of defiance against Macron and Hidalgo, some radical groups have decided to discard bags with human waste in the Seine in protest over the huge amount of money — 1.5 billion euros — spent to unsuccessfully sanitize the iconic river. They expect 15 pounds of « poop » will be added to the pre-existing myriad of toxic waste that can cause ear infections, conjunctivitis, and gastroenteritis. 

I don’t know a friend who wants to stay in Paris. 

Except me. 

I wouldn’t miss the event for anything! I will be here. The 2024 Games will mark the third time Paris has hosted the Olympics. The first was way back in 1900 and the second was in 1924 (when Paris became the first city to host two separate Olympics), which tees up a special 100th anniversary for the 2024 Games.

An ambitious opening ceremony

For the first time in the history of the Olympic Summer Games, the ceremony will not be held in a stadium. The parade of athletes will be held on the Seine with boats for each national delegation. The 2024 Games will be the first to feature an identical number of athletes between men and women! These boats will be equipped with cameras to allow television and online viewers across the world to attend the event. So be ready on Fri., July 26, for a magnificent ceremony on your TV or computer as if you were there! 

But only if the ceremony actually takes place! Today, I can tell you that the security specialists believe it will be canceled because of the risk of terrorist attacks. 

So no ceremony on the Seine? Authorities are preparing a plan B, and even a plan C for the opening ceremony just in case it can’t take place on the River as planned. The worst scenario? The boats will be on the Seine without the athletes. 

A chance for Seine-Saint-Denis

You have to know that, despite its name, the Paris Olympics will take place mostly in Seine-Saint-Denis. 

Like every major city, there are specific areas to which hosting the Olympics may provide a boost.  In Paris’s case, it is Seine-Saint-Denis in the north of the city, which has absorbed wave after wave of immigration of the desperately poor and uneducated young people. This area houses the youngest population in the country. A third of its 1.6 million people live below the poverty line. 

Will that work? We will see. The challenge is huge. Seine-Saint-Denis hopes to write a new chapter of its history, one that plays up its diversity rather than crime and outbursts of rioting. Everything will be ready on time. 4.4 billion euros have been invested to build the sports venues, among them the Olympic Village, a huge building project and a whole new eco-neighborhood in itself. At the end of the Games, the Village will morph into a mixed neighborhood of apartments for those most in need.

A chance for Parisians, or not

The City of Light has not been forgotten! Some of the competitions will be hosted at existing Paris monuments transformed into sports arenas. Grand Palais will host fencing. Basketball and skateboarding will be outside on Place de la Concorde. Beach volley under the legs of the Eiffel Tower. Archery will take place in Esplanade des Invalides… When I told you it would be great to be in Paris for the Games, I think — and hope — that I am right. 

But there are obviously restrictions on my enthusiasm, and my friends who want to flee Paris keep telling me that it will be impossible to move around the capital with 15 million visitors! There will be changes to traditional transportation systems, including street closures and closed metro stations.

But that is nothing. The most difficult thing will be to respect the security challenge, as we are on maximum alert.

Let’s try to stay optimistic 

The Chief of Police in Paris has outlined significant security measures. For example, residents living near the Olympic venues will need to request a QR code allowing them to pass through police barriers. I live near the Eiffel Tower and I have already asked for my QR Code. Everyone entering the Olympic areas must provide sufficient reasons (going home, to a hotel, or having tickets for activities).

We must also register any visitor wishing to observe the athletes from our balcony, window, or rooftop! I have no view of any sports venue. But I have a friend who has a balcony facing the Seine, and he thought to host my children and me to watch the Opening ceremony with his family: 9 people. But his balcony was subjected to a safety inspection (not solid enough) and he will not be able to invite more than four people onto it! 

Tens of thousands of police officers, thousands of soldiers, and private security staff will be deployed. The police force will be boosted to 73,000 officers. I hope it will be enough. 

We learned very well in Atlanta that the Olympics are a target of international terrorism. I checked: 14,000 troops were sent to Atlanta in 1996 to increase security on the athlete transportation system and multiple layers of security were put in most of the sports venues. That did not prevent one of the major celebration points, Centennial Olympic Park, from becoming the target of a bomber. 

The Olympics is more than just sport.

It is the world’s gathering to celebrate peace and the human spirit. Bitter lesson: sports and the athletes are not the only targets of terrorists. 

Sometimes it can be the celebration itself that becomes the target.

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