100-Day Countdown, Paris Preps To Reignite Passion For The Olympic Games

By Javier Sanchez | Tuesday, 16 April 2024 05:15 AM
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In the outskirts of Paris, a young girl with sparkling eyes eagerly awaits the conclusion of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The reason for her anticipation is the promise of an Olympic pool that will be relocated to her local swimming club. The pool, currently situated in Paris' bustling business district, will be disassembled post-Games and transported to Sevran, a less affluent suburb of Paris. Once there, it will be reassembled, providing 10-year-old Lyla Kebbi and her swim team with a new Olympic-sized pool.

"It’s incredible!" exclaims Kebbi, her excitement palpable. Her mother, Nora, adds, "I hope it’s going to bring us luck."

In 100 days, the Paris Olympics will commence with an ambitious waterborne opening ceremony. However, the success of the first Games in France’s capital in a century will not be measured solely by spectacle. The impact on disadvantaged Paris suburbs, distanced from the city-center landmarks hosting most of the action, will also be a significant yardstick.

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Paris, a city synonymous with romance, is setting itself the lofty goal of hosting a socially positive, less polluting, and less wasteful Olympics. The aim is to make future Games more appealing in a world grappling with climate change and other crises. Critics, however, question the value of such an event in the face of these global emergencies.

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC), based in Switzerland, has faced a growing skepticism following scandals, the $13 billion cost of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021, and unfulfilled promises of beneficial change for host cities like Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi were also marred by Russian doping and President Vladimir Putin's subsequent land grabs in Ukraine. A successful Summer Games in Paris could help restore faith in the IOC’s mega-event.

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From the outset, the Paris Games, scheduled for July 26-Aug. 11, and the Paralympics, set for Aug. 28-Sept. 8, were designed to benefit disadvantaged communities in the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris. This region, mainland France’s poorest, is also vibrantly diverse, with 130 nationalities and over 170 languages spoken by its 1.6 million inhabitants. For children in Seine-Saint-Denis facing racial discrimination and other barriers, sports often provide a route to a better life. World Cup winner Kylian Mbappé, for example, honed his soccer skills as a boy in the Seine-Saint-Denis town of Bondy.

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Seine-Saint-Denis, once a heavily industrialized region, became grim and frightening in parts after many jobs were lost. Rioting rocked its streets in 2005 and again last year. Members of an Islamic extremist cell that killed 130 people in the French capital in 2015 hid after the carnage in an apartment in the town of Saint-Denis and were killed in a shootout with heavily armed SWAT teams. This drama unfolded just a 15-minute walk from the Olympic stadium that will host track and field and rugby and the closing ceremonies.

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Despite the challenges, the Games will leave a legacy of new and refurbished sports infrastructure in Seine-Saint-Denis. Critics, however, argue that the investment is still insufficient to bring the region up to par with more prosperous areas.

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Mamitiana Rabarijaona, who grew up near the Olympic stadium, originally built for the 1998 soccer World Cup, believes the Olympics will be "a big party." He will be among the 45,000 volunteers assisting with the event. However, he is not expecting Olympic-related investments to magically erase Seine-Saint-Denis' many difficulties.

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"It's like lifting the carpet and brushing the dust underneath," he said. "It doesn't make it go away."

Seine-Saint-Denis is home to the new Olympic village, which will be converted into housing and offices once the 10,500 Olympians and 4,400 Paralympians have departed. The region also houses the Games' only purpose-built competition venue, an aquatics center for diving, water polo, and artistic swimming events. Other competition venues already existed, were previously planned, or will be temporary.

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"We really were driven by the ambition of sobriety and above all not to build sports facilities that aren’t needed and which will have no reason to exist after the Games," said Marie Barsacq, the organizing committee's legacy director.

The relocated 50-meter pool for Sevran will be a significant upgrade for the town of 51,000 people, which was hit hard by factory closures in the 1990s. Its existing 25-meter pool is nearly 50 years old. Other towns in Seine-Saint-Denis are also set to receive new or renovated pools — a welcome development for the region's children, only half of whom can swim.

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"The ambition for these Olympic Games ... is that they benefit everyone and for the longest time possible," said Sevran Mayor Stéphane Blanchet. The Olympics, Blanchet said, can't "carry on just passing through and then moving on without thinking about tomorrow."

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At close to $9.7 billion, more than half from sponsors, ticket sales, and other non-public funding, Paris' expenses so far are less than for the last three Summer Games in Tokyo, Rio, and London in 2012.

Including policing and transport costs, the portion of the bill for French taxpayers is likely to be around $3.25 billion, according to France's body for auditing public funds.

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Security remains a challenge for the city, which has been repeatedly hit by deadly extremist violence. The government downsized ambitions to have 600,000 people lining the River Seine for the opening ceremony due to the risk of attacks. It also shelved a promise that anyone could apply for hundreds of thousands of free tickets. Instead, the 326,000 spectators will either be paying ticket-holders or have been invited.

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Privacy advocates are critical of video surveillance technology being deployed to spot security threats. Campaigners for the homeless are concerned that they will be swept off streets. Many Parisians plan to leave, to avoid the disruptions or to rent their homes to the expected 15 million visitors. With trade unions pushing for Olympic bonuses, strikes are also possible.

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And all this against an inflammable backdrop of geopolitical crises including but not limited to the Israel-Hamas war and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. As a consequence, the IOC isn't allowing athletes from Russia and ally Belarus to parade with other Olympians at the opening ceremony.

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Still, Olympics fans expect big things of Paris. They include Ayaovi Atindehou, a 32-year-old trainee doctor from Togo studying in France. The Olympic volunteer believes the Games can bridge divisions, even if just temporarily.

"The whole world without racial differences, ethnic differences, religious differences. We will be all together, shouting, celebrating," he said. "We need the Olympic Games."

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