French President Emmanuel Macron launched the countdown to the 2024 Paris Olympics on Tuesday, taking stock of preparations for the mammoth event as officials race to get the city’s transport network into shape and stage an opening ceremony unlike any other.
On the eve of his visit, Macron teased the event by tweeting the cover of Time Magazine’s latest issue, headlined on the race to clean up “the world’s most romantic river”.
“With 500 days to go, we are within reach of achieving one of the greatest legacies of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris,” the French president wrote, referencing a hugely ambitious 1.4-billion-euro plan to clean up the heavily polluted waterway in time for the Games.
Making the Seine fit for swimming is an old Parisian dream. In 1988, former French president Jacques Chirac, then the city’s mayor, famously promised to make the river swimmable “in three years” – a pledge he never delivered on.
The dream has become a necessity now that Paris has pledged to stage several Olympics events, including the 10 kilometre swimming marathon, in the Seine – as it did back in 1900, when it first hosted the Games.
The prospect of athletes swimming down the world-famous river, alongside Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower, was a major asset for the French capital’s bid to host the “biggest show on earth”.
In perhaps the biggest gamble of Paris 2024, organisers plan to take the opening ceremony out of its traditional stadium setting and stage it on water.
The vision, outlined by Macron, is for sporting delegations to sail down the Seine in an armada of boats, in view of up to 600,000 spectators lining the river’s banks over a six-kilometre stretch.
The appeal of projecting such a bold statement of French ambition before a global TV audience of hundreds of millions is clear. Turning it into reality is said to be giving planners cold sweats.
As the Games loom into view, the number of boats, the arrangements for spectators, crowd control and security measures are still the subject of intense discussions. A first practice run is expected in July this year, with 30 to 40 boats set to participate.
“Everyone is working flat-out on preparations,” one senior French official involved in the process told AFP on condition of anonymity. “A ceremony like this has never taken place before. But we’ll manage it, we’ll be ready.”
Some security experts have voiced concerns, however, warning about the dangers of uncontrolled crowd movements close to the water, and the challenges of securing such a long stretch of water with overlooking buildings.
Sceptics point to the chaotic scenes at last year’s Champions League final in Paris, when Liverpool fans found themselves in a crush outside the stadium, as a reminder of the dangers of badly organised sporting events.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who faced severe criticism for his handling of the Champions League fiasco, travelled to the World Cup in Qatar in November last year on a fact-finding mission. While there, he warned of the dangers of “a drone loaded with explosives that falls on a crowd, on an exposed team, on an opening ceremony like at the Olympic Games, for example”.
For the opening ceremony, Darmanin is counting on 35,000 members of the security forces being on duty, with police already warned that requests for leave over the summer holiday period will not be permitted.
The interior ministry has also suggested 25,000 private security agents should be used for less critical missions, with thousands currently being screened, recruited and trained. However, the low bids being offered by the organising committee mean many private security companies are struggling to recruit staff, another source close to the event told AFP.
On Tuesday, Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said there would be “no taboo” on drafting in the army if necessary, as was the case at the 2012 Olympics in London.
In another recruitment headache, the Paris region’s transport system is scrambling to bounce back from a year of chronic staff shortages and sporadic strikes – one of which precipitated the chaos of the Champions League final.
Like the football final, much of the Olympics will take place in the Seine-Saint-Denis département northeast of Paris, the poorest in metropolitan France and the most densely populated after Paris, known for its creaking transport infrastructure.
There are serious questions about whether the extension of a key metro line to the Athletes’ Village will be completed in time for the Games and a major shortfall in the number of bus drivers is causing concerns too.
In the best-case scenario, transport will already be well short of what organisers promised when they submitted their final bid seven years ago. A future metro line that promised to link Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport with the Athletes’ Village in “under 30 minutes” will not be ready in time for the Games; nor will the long-delayed CDG Express train linking the airport with the heart of Paris.