The Olympics

Can Paris still deliver on its Olympic promises with only three months to go?

Author: Editors Desk, Louise NORDSTROM Source: France 24
April 25, 2024 at 10:56
For the first time in history, the Olympic opening ceremony is planned to be held outside of the traditional stadium setting on the River Seine. © Handout Florian Hulleu, Paris 2024, AFP / Illustration
For the first time in history, the Olympic opening ceremony is planned to be held outside of the traditional stadium setting on the River Seine. © Handout Florian Hulleu, Paris 2024, AFP / Illustration

The Eiffel Tower was supposed to greet the world’s athletes in a fresh coat of golden shimmer, the River Seine would be swimmable for the first time in 100 years and Paris was going to host the first-ever off-stadium opening ceremony in Olympic history. The hopes and expectations for the 2024 Games were grand and spectacular but with just three months to go will Paris be able to deliver on its promises?a

“It’s going to be magical,” Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo exclaimed just moments after learning that her city had won its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.

It was the late summer of 2017 and along with Tony Estanguet, France’s three-time Olympic canoeing champion who would later be tapped the chief organiser of the event, the Parisian mayor vowed to deliver an Olympics unlike any other.

But just as the Paris Olympics apparatus had begun to unveil beautiful imagery of the grandiose transformation the city would undergo in time for the event, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, resulting in three nationwide lockdowns and considerable delays to some of the rehabilitation plans. Not even a year before the start of the Games, the war in Gaza broke out, stoking domestic tensions. Then, with just four months to go, a deadly terror attack shook Russia and forced France to raise its security alert to its highest level – a move that could potentially impact the star of the show: the opening ceremony on the River Seine.

Meanwhile, bills have racked up, leading to transport tariff revisions, and the Seine River has proven to be a far more complicated clean-up project than thought.


Despite the hurdles, officials insist the Games are on track. As the three-month countdown begins, FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the main challenges and where they currently stand.

  • Will the Eiffel Tower be painted in gold?

This might not have been as much of a promise as it was an ambition – but no, the Iron Lady will not be entirely redressed in a fresh paint of gold in time for the Games.

The paintjob of the 330-metre-tall monument began in 2019 and its completion was supposed to be timed not only with the Games but also with the 100 year anniversary of the death of its architect, Gustave Eiffel.

There are two main reasons for the delay: the Covid-19 pandemic, which shaved a total of nine months off the initial schedule, then lead was discovered in previous layers of paint, pushing the finish line even more forward.

At the time of writing, the Eiffel Tower is not expected to shine in its new golden robe until some time in 2025 or 2026.


The Eiffel Tower in Paris, on April 16, 2024.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris, on April 16, 2024. © Stefano Rellandini, AFP
  • Will the Seine be swimmable?

Cleaning up the Seine and making it swimmable again for the first time in 100 years was perhaps Hidalgo’s most sacrosanct Olympic promise. So much so, that the Paris mayor has repeatedly pledged to take a dip in the river herself before the Games open. And so has President Emmanuel Macron.

The river is set to host several Olympic swimming competitions, including the open-water swimming events (200 metre freestyle and 200 metre obstacle event) as well as the triathlon events.

But the still yellow-brown water that flows through the French capital has so far proved to be far more difficult to clean up than expected. At least two pre-Olympic test events had to be cancelled last year after an excessive amount of E. coli bacteria was detected in the water.

In the beginning of April, French water charity Surfrider said it had analysed six months of tests taken between September and March and that the water where the Olympic events are set to take place are still too polluted. According to the charity, which analysed tests carried out by the laboratory Eau de Paris and environmental analysis group Analy-Co, the occurrence of E. coli and enterococci – which both indicate the presence of faecal matter – was often double, and in some cases even triple the limits set by the international triathlon and open-water swimming federations.

But there is still some hope: Most of the tests Surfrider analysed were taken in winter which is a period when heavy rains and flooding tend to pollute the water more than usual. And work is still underway to add more pollution-preventing measures. By the end of this month, the Seine will be equipped with a new storm water facility, and new sewage connections are being added to its river boats every day.

Although there is currently no plan B, the prefect of the Île-de-France region and Paris remains confident, insisting in a statement that “the water in the Seine will be swimmable to allow the events to take place”.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Benjamin Maze, the technical director for the French triathlon team, said the water quality of the Seine "is not a concern for triathletes" and is unlikely to stop the competition, noting it did not do so neither in the Tokyo, Rio or London Olympics, where the water concerns were similar.

The worst-case scenario, he predicted, would be that the compeition is moved up a few days.

The City of Paris did not reply to a request for comment on the issue.


  • Is Paris public transport up for the job?

With 8.8 million tickets sold, a massive amount of visitors are expected in Paris for the July 26-August 11 Olympics and August 28-September 8 Paralympics. And all eyes are on the city’s aging Métro, which will be the main means of transport for many. The number of daily passengers is expected to jump from the usual 150,000 a day to an estimated 800,000.

In anticipation of the Games, the city has sped up its Grand Paris Express project which, once it is all done and dusted, is set to add four new lines to the network and extend two already existing lines. Three of the new lines (15, 16 and 17) were hoped to be ready for Paris 2024 but organisers had to ditch those plans already a few years ago due to technical issues and delays related to the pandemic. An express train line connecting Paris’s international Charles de Gaulle airport also had to be pushed to the future for the same reasons.

With three months to go, workers are now rushing to finish the extensions of the existing metro lines, 11 and 14, where line 14 is the most important since it will connect the city to the southern Orly airport and include a transport node near the Stade de France. Operator RATP has said the line will be ready in June. “We’re running, it’s a marathon. But we’re on time,” Jean Castex, the head of the RATP and former French prime minister, insisted in late March.

What is certain, however, is that the iconic Paris Métro will be under pressure from the passenger increase and RATP has announced it will add both more trains and more staff to handle it. But there are signs that authorities are nervous. Earlier this year, the government launched a campaign under the banner “anticipate the games” urging those living and working in the city to “favour remote work when possible” as well as to consider other means of transport, including biking and walking. One of the main reasons is the fear of congestion, especially during peak hours.


Commuters aboard a train of the subway line 1 which runs through Paris on December 12, 2019 in Paris.
Commuters aboard a train of the subway line 1 which runs through Paris on December 12, 2019 in Paris. © Philippe Lopez, AFP/ File picture


Michel Allouche, a 39-year-old videographer who regularly uses the subway to travel to his work in northern Paris, said he will do everything to avoid taking it during the Games.

“The Métro is already a mess under normal circumstances so I think it will be a total nightmare during the Olympics,” he said. “I think the only solution will be to use my bike to get around, and if it rains, too bad, I’ll just have to put a raincoat on.”


  • Will the opening ceremony be held on the Seine?

This is likely an issue that will keep everyone on their toes until the very last minute and is tied to one thing: security.

After the Islamic State (IS) group claimed the deadly terror attack on a Moscow concert hall on March 22, France raised its security alert to the highest level. Not even three weeks later, the group issued a threat against all Champions League quarter-final matches, including one that was held in Paris. The developments unsurprisingly cast doubts over whether Paris would really go ahead with its plan to host the opening ceremony on the Seine. Especially since France has been targeted by the IS group in the past, including the devastating 2015 attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other popular night-time venues in the city.

For the 2024 Olympics, Paris wanted to break tradition and host the opening ceremony outside of a stadium setting for the first time. The plan is to hold the event on the Seine river, where the athletes will be carried along the river in a six-kilometre-long boat parade – before the eyes of hundreds of thousands of spectators seated on the embankments.


This handout illustration released on December 15, 2021 by Paris 2024 Olympic Committee shows the Paris Olympics opening ceremony on July 26, 2024.
This handout illustration released on December 15, 2021 by Paris 2024 Olympic Committee shows the Paris Olympics opening ceremony on July 26, 2024. More than 160 boats filled with athletes and officials from more than 200 countries will sail almost 6 kilometres between the Pont d'Austerlitz and Pont d'Iena bridges in central Paris. © Handout Florian Hulleu, Paris 2024, AFP / Illustration


But hosting such an event so openly outdoors requires a massive security effort. Earlier this year, authorities therefore halved the number of spectators by the Seine to 300,000.

Some 45,000 police officers and 2,500 private security agents have been deployed for the opening ceremony, and both the traffic around the area and the airspace will be closed off prior to it starting. Despite this, Macron in mid-April announced for the first time that the July 26 open-air event might have to be moved if the threats are deemed too high.

“If we think there are risks, depending on our analysis of the context, we have fallback scenarios," Macron said. “There are plan Bs and plan Cs,” he told French broadcasters BFM-TV and RMC.

One option, he said, could be to shorten the parade and limit it to the area around Trocadéro, which is directly across from the Eiffel Tower, or simply move the opening ceremony to the national stadium, Stade de France.  

Macron announcement came amid media reports that the much trumpeted anti-drone system, Parade, has performed worse than anticipated in recent test exercises. "Put in other words, Parade stopped the drones but within a much smaller perimeter than expected,” an anonymous security source told French weekly Marianne.

“It’s a world first. We can do it and we will do it,” Macron said in the interview.

In an emailed response, the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (COJO) confirmed that limiting the ceremony to the Trocadéro "forms part of the contingency plans", and that if the security situation demands it, "the Stade de France could be one of the potential host venues".

But, it added: "Threats and risks should not prevent us from dreaming, nor from creating dreams, with a ceremony on the Seine."

For the time being, however, the plan remains to keep the ceremony on the Seine.


  • Will it be a people's party?

That was definitely the ambition, but with the number of slashed seat numbers by the Seine – of which two-thirds were free of cost – and steep price hikes in public transport, the party is becoming less and less for everyone.

Paris had initially stated that public transport would be free for all during the Games but backpeddled on that promise already in 2022 to cover for the costs of restoring and running the system.

At the end of last year, the region's transport authorities then announced an exceptional ticket price increase during the period, meaning a single ticket will go from €2.15 to €4.

Locals have been advised to either buy their tickets in advance or charge their monthly passes to avoid the steep price hikes.


  • How 'green' will the Games be?

Organisers initially said the Games would be "carbon neutral", meaning the event would achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions but after facing heavy criticism for being misleadingly optimistic, they instead went with hosting "the greenest in history".

The goal is to halve the carbon footprint emitted by London in 2012 and Rio in 2016 – during which 3.4 million and 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted – and keep to a "carbon budget" under 1.58 million tonnes of CO2.

A report published by environmental non-profit Carbon Market Watch in mid-April commended Paris for becoming the first Olympic host in history to set up such a budget but noted it would be very difficult to assess due to a lack of transparency.

"It remains unsubstantiated. No methodology or details about calculation are disclosed, and carbon budgets across editions might not be comparable," it said, adding it “remains to be seen” whether the target aligns with the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Paris has made considerable efforts to limit its carbon footprint when it comes to the construction of its sports venues and athlete accommodations – 95 percent of them already exist or can be reused or recycled – and has also laid out the Games in a way that will allow for visitors to mostly get around by foot, bicycle and public transport. There will also be a wide offering of vegetarian food options during the Games.

But, the report said, activities directly linked to the Games only account for about a third of the greenhouse gases emitted. Instead it pointed to the main culprit: the travel to and from the Olympics, which accounts for a staggering 40 percent of Olympic emissions. 

“It becomes clear that no Olympic Games can truly be compatible with the Paris Agreement’s objectives,” the report said, adding that the Olympics in their entirety need a "radical reimagining" to really be viewed as sustainable.


  • Is the Olympic Village and other venues ready?

Yes! The keys to the Olympic Village, the Olympic Aquatics Centre and other venues have already been handed over after all were completed on time.


The Paris 2024 Olympic Village in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, was inaugurated on February 29, 2024.
The Paris 2024 Olympic Village in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, was inaugurated on February 29, 2024. © Ludovic Marin, pool, AFP/ File picture
At the time of writing, the COJOP had already installed 4,200 of the 14,200 beds in the Olympic Village and scaffolding and temporary spectator stands were being raised across the city, including in emblematic Parisian landmarks like the central La Concorde and the Champs de Mars by the Eiffel Tower, as well as at Versailles, west of Paris.

"After months of question marks and worries (...) we're feeling that we're entering a phase of 'Olympic mania'," Emmanuel Grégoire, Paris's deputy mayor, told journalists in mid-April.

Still, not everyone is as enthused about the Games as the organisers: Only four out of 10 French people say they feel "impatient" about the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The COJOP said that it was aware of the sometimes "heated" debates among the French ahead of the Games but said it was "a natural sign of the public's enthusiasm for these games".

On May 8, the Olympic Flame is set to arrive in the southern French city of Marseille then pass through some 400 villages, towns and cities before reaching Paris.

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