Perched beside the river Seine, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Paris’ Trocadéro gardens are no stranger to crowds.
Usually a favorite for tourists, while the Tokyo Olympic Games were in full swing, the gardens attracted new visitors: sports fans. Every day, Parisians and tourists alike gathered there to watch their compatriots compete on a giant screen.
The pinnacle of the party came on August 8, when Anne Hidalgo, mayor of the French capital, received the Olympic flag during the closing ceremony in Tokyo, as Paris readied itself to host the next games in 2024.
The “City of Lights” went all in to celebrate the moment: French astronaut Thomas Pesquet played Le Marseilles, the French national anthem, with his saxophone in the International Space Station and France’s elite Patrouille de France air display team flew over the Trocadéro gardens, making the French flag with their smoke trails.
“This ceremony will be a foretaste of Paris 2024,” said Tony Estanguet, president of the 2024 Paris Olympics organizing committee. “It’s the DNA of Paris 2024 that will be expressed.”
For its third Summer Olympics, exactly 100 years after it last hosted the sporting spectacle, the French capital has ambitious plans.
Preparations for the 2024 Games are well underway and despite the pandemic’s challenges, there are no major construction delays, according to Estanguet.
Three years out, the Paris team is keeping their hopes that the pandemic, which severely impacted the Tokyo Olympics, will be behind them in 2024.
“Of course, we are learning a lot as we have done here in Tokyo about adapting to the challenges of a pandemic,” said Agathe Renoux, spokesperson for Paris 2024. “We are ready to adapt and we are keeping our focus on our exciting Games.”
Mathieu Hanotin, mayor of the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis that will host the centerpiece of Olympics infrastructure – the athletes’ village – shared in the optimism.
Hanotin told CNN that with spectators banned from this year’s Games due to Covid-19, the “celebration was inevitably hidden,” but by 2024, “we will be able to breathe.”
“What’s certain is that we will do a lot of work to bring back the experience,” added Hanotin.
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The Green Games
For the French capital, Estanguet says the Games’ two key themes are “green” and “participation” – Paris 2024 will be the first Olympics to be aligned with the climate agreement signed in the city in 2015.
The Paris 2024 organizing committee has promised a 55% decrease of its carbon footprint compared to the 3.5-million-ton average set by previous Olympics.
The first step towards achieving this goal is by cutting down construction – 75% of Paris 2024’s facilities pre-date the Games and 20% will be temporary. That means only 5% of facilities – the Olympic Village and the Olympic Aquatics Center – will be permanent new buildings, 10 times less than previous Games.
“If there is no need, we won’t build it,” said Estanguet. “We will do with a temporary one.”
Following in London 2012’s footsteps, beach volleyball will take place in a temporary stadium built in the city center, on the famous Champs de Mars, with the Eiffel Tower as the backdrop.
Roughly one kilometer to the east, the vast lawn in front of Les Invalides will host the archery and the Palace of Versailles’ sumptuous gardens will welcome the equestrian events.
Plans for the opening ceremony – unusually set to take place in the center of Paris – remain under wraps but organizer Estanguet underlined the desire to “connect the population” with the Games.
The Games’ ‘beating heart’
For 2024, Paris decided to set its Olympic Village, athletics arena and new aquatics center in Saint Denis – a suburb to the city’s immediate north – a district where the Stade de France was built to host the 1998 World Cup.
Saint Denis has had its fair share of economic and social problems. The intention is for the area to become “the beating heart of the Olympic Games” and regain its pride, said Hanotin.
With around one billion euros ($1.18 billion) of Olympics-related investment planned there, the Games hold the promise of much-needed infrastructure development across Paris, including new metro and road links.
Moreover, it also gives the people of Saint Denis a hard deadline for when they must be finished: 2024.
“It will allow us to accomplish, in several years, what will usually take 15 or 20 years to finish,” Hanotin said.
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An Olympic cost?
Nevertheless, the construction sprint has sparked local concerns that projects are underway without sufficient public consideration or consultation.
A new interchange on the A86, Paris’ outer ring road, will bring up to 20,000 cars of traffic through the center of the community of Le Pleyel (population 13,000) according to official estimates and through a major school district.
Some locals are concerned about the long-term effects this increased air and noise pollution might have on children in the area – and they’re not alone.
The government’s own environmental assessment, published in 2019, stated that the plan will increase pollution “particularly around the Pleyel intersection” where the schools are located and “could significantly affect the local population.”
But locals say the state hasn’t acted on that.
To date, more than 13,000 people have signed an online petition to modify the project. Activist groups have also filed an administrative lawsuit against the project, which was delivered to the Council of State – the country’s highest administrative court – at the end of 2020 and is currently awaiting a decision.
“What was promised is environmental excellency in what’s used to build the Olympic Village” said Gintrac. “But for us, the environment is where we live, the air we breathe and the noise we hear.”