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  • Céleste Nonnenmacher & Tilman Voss

Paris before the 2024 Olympics - a city between excitement and concerns

It is less than 100 days until the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris are set to commence. While many - especially the French government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - are looking forward with excitement to the Games happening between July 26 and August 11, a precarious security situation, the huge influence of politics and its consequences, doping accusations and repercussions local citizens are facing shed a less optimistic light on the mega event.


Being a tourist in Paris can be a truly disappointing experience at the moment. Famous sites like Les Invalides, La Concorde and even the Eiffel Tower are obstructed by construction work. Indeed, buildings and information centers are emerging all over the place. This is, of course, for a good reason, as the city of Light is finishing its last preparations for this Summer’s Olympic Games. With only two months to go before the start of the festivities, very little time is left.


By now, the Olympic flame relay has already started. After the torch was lit in Olympia, Greece, according to the ancient tradition, it reached the old port of Marseille on March 8 on board the 19th century three-master sailing-ship Belem, before taking a 12 000 km route. Now, the flame is circulating within various French historical sites, relayed by over 11.000 different people. It will reach its final destination in Paris on July 26, marking the beginning of the XXXIII Olympiad. 


The allocated state budget for the Olympics is between 4 and 5 billion euros - a sum that France justifies by its desire to organize “the most sustainable, inclusive and supportive Games in history”. As millions of visitors are expected during those two weeks, hopes are high that the overall turnover will be positive. The opening ceremony, traditionally held in a closed stadium, is for the first-time taking place within the city limits. Even more astonishing: it’s going to be on the Seine itself. The different national delegations will be parading in boats along a 6km course that ends in front of the Trocadéro, right across from the Eiffel Tower. Around 500.000 spectators, up to 200 world leaders, will be able to attend the opening ceremony. The river itself, which has been polluted for decades, is currently being cleaned up and set to host the swimming competitions. The Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo herself promised she would take a dip in the Seine before the Olympics to prove its quality. The stage seems set for an undoubtedly historic opening to a memorable event that will, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, “show France at its best”


But there is a gap between vision and reality.


If the opening ceremony can be held in the way the organizers envisioned it, will most likely depend on the ability of the French police to secure it against the imminent threat of a terrorist attack.  After the shooting in the Crocus City Hall in Moscow, Russia, which cost over 140 civilian lives, the entire French territory has been upgraded to the highest stage of its three level terror alert scheme. The numbers of police forces set to be deployed during the Games are enormous: for the opening ceremony alone, 45.000 officers are scheduled to be present, and 30.000 are set to be mobilized every other day. Furthermore, there is a security perimeter set up along the route  After the traumatic memory of the November 2015 Paris attacks, the French authorities are doing everything they can to prevent any form of outrage. However, there is still a lack of security personnel: around 8.000 positions need to be filled. In that context, Macron even considered the possibility of holding the ceremony in a different venue, stating that the organizers had a “Plan B and even a Plan C”.

  

Not only Paris, but also the Olympic Games themselves experienced their own terrorist trauma: At the 1972 Munich Olympics, members of the Palestinian Militant Organization Black September managed to take 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team hostage. All of them were killed when German police forces engaged in a desperate and disorganized attempt to free the hostages on an airfield near Munich. Today, the conflict again plays a huge role since it reignited on October 7, and is most likely receiving more worldwide media attention than ever before: after the Hamas´ attack on Israel, including mass hostage taking, Israel responded by starting a military offensive towards the Gaza strip that has been and still is leading to huge casualties among civilians.  


While Israelis fear a similar attack like 1972 on its Olympic delegation, others are questioning whether the country should even be allowed to participate  given the atrocities it is committing in the Gaza Strip. In this context, many compare Israel's aggression to that of Russia, and call for an exclusion of the country's athletes. While the IOC has made clear that Palestinian athletes will be invited to participate in the Olympics even if they initially don’t manage to qualify, the Committee has dismissed such comparisons.

 

The issue of Russian and Belarusian participation however remains to be another contentious topic. Since the start of the Russian invasion into Ukraine in February 2022, both countries have been banned from participating in international competitions. Their athletes, however, will be allowed to compete as neutral participants if they do not support the ongoing invasion or are not contracted with any military or security organization. Regardless, Russian and Belarusian athletes won't be attending the opening parade.


This approach has sparked criticism, especially from the Ukrainian Olympic delegation, which even considered boycotting the games. With the IOC´s president Thomas Bach accused of being notoriously lenient when dealing with authoritarian regimes, the treatment of these athletes is overall viewed with suspicion, if not anger. Russia itself also criticized the decision, but focused on the fact that athletes would not be allowed to experience the opening ceremony, labeling the decision as a step towards “racism and neo-Nazism”. Russia is planning to hold the first edition of its counter-equivalent to the Olympics, ironically named “Friendship Games”, just like the Games that the Soviet Union organized in 1984 as a counter-event to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Both occurrences show the significant role politics play in this edition. In this context, Macron's hope of turning the Olympics into a beacon of peace, like the “Olympic truce” idea he voiced during a recent meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems idealistic (Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy already announced that they wouldn't follow suit).

 

Shifting the arena towards sport - which is what the games should actually be about (but stopped being a long time ago) - the problems continue. First of all, when returning to the Seine, it remains to be questioned if the quality of the river is good enough until summer to hold the competitions as planned. And there is a bigger issue: In the Olympics, around 10.500 athletes from 206 countries are expected to compete in 28 disciplines in a fair manner - but can a level-playing field really be ensured? Just recently, an investigative report uncovered a huge doping scandal among Chinese athletes. According to that report, 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive on a forbidden substance before the 2021 Olympics, but were still allowed to participate in the Games, winning several medals. Astonishingly, the international anti-doping organization WADA was alleged to be aware of these proceedings, but chose not to act. So, if state-level doping is not adequately punished, do these competitions really reflect the Olympic spirit? 

 

With all these caveats, it comes with little surprise that French citizens seem not particularly excited about the Games themselves. With an interest level no higher than 53%, enthusiasm seems to be found mostly outside the country. The explanation for this lies mostly in the Games´ impact on people's daily lives.


First element of tension: the canceling of thousands of hotel rooms without compensation to Parisian hoteliers. Why? Because when the Organization Committee booked the rooms in 2017, they simply reserved more rooms than necessary. At least, this may do one thing: reduce the surge in hotel prices a little. Currently, a night in Paris costs 522 euros on average, while in September 2023 it had been 759 euros. This situation has not gone unnoticed in neighboring Brussels, where hotels are offering rooms “4 times cheaper than in Paris”. In case you were planning to attend the Olympics, this might be a possible solution – of course as long as you don’t include the price of the train ticket in it…


Also, the authorities’ decision to requisition 3000 student rooms to cope with the shortage of rooms allocated to the staff (firefighters, nurses, and police officers), did not fail to alert the French public: uncertainty, feeling of abandonment and social injustice were among the sentiments shared by the students concerned. 


Local student organizations denounced the choice offered by the “Interministerial Delegation for the Olympic and Paralympic Games”: Either students leave their home for summer - public authorities justified this measure with the fact that 30% of student rooms are empty at this period - with the possibility of relocation if they want to stay in the capital, or they can stay, but have to volunteer for the Olympics. Lack of information provided, moving organized during the exam period, and the supplementary costs that all of this generates for the students are the main topics of discontent. The meager compensation proposed by the public student housing institution CROUS - 100 euros of aid, as well as 2 free tickets for the Olympics - is perceived as far from being enough. By now, first moves have begun, and students’ opinions are still mixed. 


Adding to that, public transport costs will significantly increase during the Games. Proposed solution: buy your tickets before the 20th of July or pay almost twice the current price. From July 20, the price for a metro ticket will rise from 2,15€ to 4 €, for a city bus, the price will go up from 2,50€ to 5€. The public transport company is claiming to try and minimize the impact on local residents as much as possible, as the increases “do not concern monthly subscriptions, as well as packages for students, elderly disabled and social rate beneficiaries”. Still, the decision has sparked outrage among local citizens.


Another element of concern is what numerous human rights associations and the French newspaper Le Monde denounce as a “social cleaning process” operated by the government in the run-up to the Games. Hundreds of people, a majority of them migrants, are being transferred from the capital to the provinces without clear guidance and with little to no housing solutions being offered. This is arousing discontent from local mayors, who see it as an attempt to preserve an idealized image of Paris for the Olympics - a situation that does not really match the claim of organizing the “most inclusive Games” of history.  


Putting all these concerns together, a rather gloomy light shines on the XXXIII Olympiad. What is important to note is that it is surely not the first event - not even the first Olympics - that has been accompanied by numerous critiques and concerns in its run-up. However, as one has often seen in the past, once the event started, all these surrounding concerns made way for the event itself. The end of July will show if this “rule” will strike again.

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